The knowns and unknowns framework for design thinking

AJ Justo

On the 12th of February 2002, Donald Rumsfeld, back then Secretary of State of the US, used an until then little known framework to help him in making the case for the invasion of Iraq: the Knowns and Unknowns framework. I think it is fair to say that the reception by the press was mixed: some accused him of playing with words with little meaning, while others saw some method in what he was trying to do.

Rumsfeld’s words have been turned into a poem, written by an unknown poet (very appropriately!) and included in a collection of poems all based on speeches by Donald Rumsfeld, Pieces of Intelligence, by Hart Seely (here in an edited version by Daase and Kessler):

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We do not know.
Finally, there are unknown knowns
The knowns
We do not want to know.

What is it?

The Knowns and Unknowns categorisation has been used since the Greek era and in many areas of knowledge. It is a powerful tool to surface what we know and don’t know about a problem.

The apparent simplicity of the Knowns and Unknowns framework is deceiving: it can byte you and get people thinking that you are just playing with words, as happened to Rumsfeld. So you’ve been warned, be careful with it. And please don’t let it into the hands of war seekers.

The framework can help us to understand our approach to knowledge, to research: What do we know already (known knowns)? Are we conscious of what we are not exploring (unknown unknowns)? What about biases and unconscious decisions (unknown knowns)? Are we aware of our assumptions (known unknowns)?

The known and the unknown have to be treated in very different ways. We need to adapt our methods to the type of knowledge (including our lack of knowledge, which is also knowledge, if we are aware of it).

If you are working with your unknowns (the Unknown Knowns or the Unknown Unknowns) you need to use exploratory techniques: How might we surface some of those unknowns? How might we prepare for the surprises ahead?

If instead you are investigating what you already know about a problem (the Known Knowns or the Known Unknowns) you have to work in an inductive way: how might we use those facts to learn new things? How might we test our hypotheses?

We will explore some ways of making sure that we take all our knowledge and lack of it into account as part of our research or Design Thinking methods. Before that, I have a few interesting stories about this framework.

Where did it come from?

You could argue that Socrates was using it indirectly when he said (according to Plato) “I only know that I don’t know anything”. But the first use of the method comes much later, in the thirteenth century, by the islamic philosopher Ibn Yami. This is how he categorised human beings according to their knowledge:

One who knows and knows that he knows… his horse of wisdom will reach the skies.
One who knows, but doesn’t know that he knows… he is fast asleep, so you should wake him up!
One who doesn’t know, but knows that he doesn’t know… his limping mule will eventually get him home.
One who doesn’t know and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know… he will be eternally lost in his hopeless oblivion!

He tells us that the act of acquiring knowledge is as important as what we already know.

The Johari Window. Diagram by Simon Shek — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Johari_Window.PNG

In the 1950s two psychologists, Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham, developed the Johari Window, a method to help people evaluate what they think about themselves in contrast with what others think of them. A Blind Spot, for instance, is something that we don’t know or think about ourselves but others do see in us. As a side note, the method uses adjective cards similar to those used in usability evaluation tools like Microsoft’s Reaction Cards.

The link between NASA, Rumsfeld and the Unknown

A few decades later, NASA reported that they were using the framework as part of risk analysis in space missions, specially to uncover Unknown Unknowns. In a presentation from 2003, we can see how they used the framework to evaluate the risks in the return journey of the Space Shuttle. They concentrate on moving the unknowns to the known realm.

Donald Rumsfeld re-appears in this short history of the Knowns and Unknowns: it is believed that it was a senior engineer from NASA that told Rumsfeld about the framework before he made use of it in the famous press conference in 2002. Rumsfeld certainly made the framework more popular than NASA, for good or bad.

Slavoj Zizek. Photo by Andy Miah — originally posted to Flickr as Slavoj Zizek in Liverpool, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3858994

The chaos and the bees

Slavoj Zizek is a Slovenian philosopher well known for his controversial statements, like this one: “We are all basically evil, egotistical, disgusting”. He also has something to say about our framework. In his article “Rumsfeld and the bees”, Zizek tells us that the most important category of knowledge for humanity is the Unknown Knowns: those things that we know but remain hidden as unconscious biases and prejudices that we are not aware of when making decisions. He gives the example of Climate Change: we all know it is happening, but we fail to act on it on our daily decisions.

In decision making it has been used to identify different environments and how organisations should proceed in each of them. The Chaotic environment, for instance, corresponds to our Unknown Unknowns. The way to deal with chaos is by being prepared to respond to eventualities: agility and adaptability are key. Organisations that insist on doing forecasting and detailed planning in a chaotic environment will fail.

The South China Sea disputes

Risk analysis is another area that uses this framework in an interesting way. For instance, in the South China Sea disputes, the countries involved often create Unknown Knowns on purpose, so the other contenders are left in a state of limbo, not knowing for sure the sea borders recognised by others or how willing they would be to defend them, which creates unknown geopolitical risks.

Looking for anything

Alistair Croll & Benjamin Yoskovitz used the Knowns and Unknowns framework in their book Lean Analytics to describe different ways of looking at data. This is how they recommend to use the four knowledge categories:

  • Known Knowns (facts): you use analytics data to check those facts against them.
  • Known Unknowns (hypotheses): can be confirmed or rejected with measurements.
  • Unknown Knowns (our intuitions and prejudices): can be put aside if we trust the data instead.
  • Unknown Unknowns (it can be anything!): are often left behind, but can be the source of great insight. By exploring the data in an open-minded way, we can recognise patterns and hidden behaviour that might point to opportunities.

Using the framework in Design Thinking

Scientific research often ignores what it cannot observe, that is our Unknown Unknowns. Researchers don’t usually gather data in order to just explore it. Most often, a theory of some sort is already on the table before observations or measurements begin. Theories are often built based on previous knowledge, inferred, not observed. This leads to incremental improvements, but it cannot take you to a big leap in discovery. The unknown can take you there.

At its core, the way of using the Knowns and Unknowns in Design Thinking is simply as a reminder to take all forms of knowledge into account. By doing this, we make the problem space larger and so the solution space also becomes larger. There are many possible ways of doing this. The techniques themselves are not new. The power comes from using a combination that allows you to surface all knowledge and lack of it.

Design Thinking techniques that can be used to surface the different types of knowledge.

Unknown Unknowns

To surface the Unknown Unknowns you need to explore a problem with an open mind. In user research and design research, the interviews that are often conducted at the formative stages of a project can surface these unknowns. As an example, in a recent project we discovered that some users were creating innovative workflows with external tools in order to solve their very unique problems. That is the kind of insight that takes you on big leaps to understanding the problems and to creating products that solve them.

Unknown knowns

If you want to surface Unknown Knowns, you need to get people to speak their thoughts aloud without too much thinking. Brainstorming fulfils this need. The presence of a group is important, because something that a person says serves as the catapult for others to surface related facts. Also, there are points that some will ignore because they don’t fit their agenda or some other reason, but chances are that others in the group will raise. Group sketching and other ways of rapid collective collaboration can also work towards uncovering Unknown Knowns.

Known Unknowns

With the Known Unknowns you want to create hypotheses. In a Design Thinking or UCD context this usually translates into creating quick sketches or diagrams with potential solutions that you then need to pass through the sieve of the team, and test with users. But these are basically just ideas based on existing knowledge. We have to make sure that we state them as hypothesis and not facts.

Known knowns

Facts are Known Knowns. With them you generate more knowledge. Lateral thinking techniques, like analogies, allow you to see those knowns in a different light, to create a parallel reality from the one you know. The goal is to break with convention, to create something valuable and original from something (facts) that is probably not that valuable, because it is already being exploited.

Use it!

I have been using this framework for a some months now, both for personal problems and work projects. I believe that, like other Design Thinking techniques, it opens up possibilities and forces you to think more holistically. It makes a good starting point when exploring any problem and a proven way of analysing our knowledge.

Author: AJ Justo

Collect by: uxfree.com

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