Black Swans, and the power of the unknown in UX 2

Black Swans, and the power of the unknown in UX

Back in 2002, the then secretary of state, Donald Rumsfeld delivered what was to be his now infamous speech at a U.S. Department of Defense news briefing:

Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me because 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 don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.

The statement was quickly met with debate and scrutiny, some even questioning whether it made sense at all. As such the media was very quick to satirise and ridicule the statement. However, it wasn’t long before supporters were defending the quote as a brilliant articulation of a complex matter: the importance of understanding the potential consequences in what we don’t yet recognise as a risk and/or opportunity.

What are ‘Unknown Unknowns’?

The term ‘Known Unknowns’ refers to the risks you are aware of, such as your train running late. ‘Unknown Unknowns’ are risks that arise that, up to the point of them happening, would never have occurred to you to consider. For example, prior to the introduction of mobile, taxi services probably didn’t foresee the disruption to their industry from brands like Uber.

But it’s as Rumsfeld’s last sentence says: “if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tends to be the difficult ones.”. Looking back through modern history you can start to consider the power and significance of ‘Unknown Unknowns’: The rise of Hitler, the events of 9/11, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the emergence of Digital dementia, or even the Dot-com bubble collapse, all share the common thread that they were never anticipated as being a risk and have had a massive impact as a result.

‘Unknown Unknowns’ unquestionably have the power to change the world around us. But what about us as individuals?

The ‘Unknowns’ of behavior

We are all, whether we care to acknowledge or not, driven by our emotions. In Steven Peter’s book ‘The Chimp Paradox’ he describes how emotions rather than rational thought will, more often than not, determine our behavior and the decisions we make—even if they work against us.

Our very nature, then, is to be irrational and unpredictable. Combine this with a rapidly changing social, economic and technological environment and we find ourselves in a world harbors many new ‘Unknown Unknowns’. No-one was prepared for cyber bullying or could have foreseen the rise of the ‘selfie’, for instance.

This is vital in the world of UX as without understanding the emotional drivers behind our decisions how can we create successful experiences? The key then is to differentiate between the rational and emotional behavior: just because someone ‘can’ (rational) go on to complete a goal with ease, doesn’t mean they will ‘want’ (emotional) to complete it. By trying to unearth the ‘unknowns’ about our decisions – these key pieces of information that unlock the user’s ‘will’ to perform a task – we have the potential to deliver dramatic change in the way users engage with us.

Uncovering the unknown to influence behavior

Someone who understands the importance of these ‘Unknown Unknowns’ when engaging with others more than most is Chris Voss, the FBI’s chief international hostage and kidnapping negotiator from 2003 to 2007. In his book ‘Never split the difference’ he describes how one of the most important factor when negotiating with kidnappers or terrorists etc. was to uncover their ‘unknowns’. “Everybody has cards they’re not showing… You’ve got to reveal them” says Voss. By digging out the emotional drivers for the situation Voss immediately had the leverage he needed to influence behaviors and decisions, ultimately resulting in a peaceful outcome to the situation.

Voss achieved this through something he called ‘tactical empathy’. Simply put, he asked questions, listened, and demonstrated an understanding of the other person’s perspective. By doing this he was able to open up conversations that dug deeper to uncover the ‘unknown’ motivations and circumstances of the party/parties he was negotiating with.

He called these key pieces of information ‘Black Swans’. So successful was his strategy of discovering these powerful pieces of ‘unknown’ information to influence the outcome that he even went on to name his own consultancy Black Swan Group.

What is ‘Black Swan’ theory?

The term “Black Swan” actually derives from a Latin expression coined to express something that was presumed not to exist – “as rare as a black swan”. It became popular in 16th century London as a statement of impossibility where people were absolutely certain that all swans were white.

However, in 1697, when European explorers in Western Australia actually discovered the existence of black swans, the term quickly changed to represent the idea that something which is perceived impossible might later be found possible.

More recently, the term ‘‘Black swan theory’ was popularised in the financial sector by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a former Wall Street trader and finance professor, as a metaphor that refers to unpredictable events that have significant and transformational outcomes.

Whilst in the financial sector this term is often linked to unpredicted catastrophic events such as the housing collapse of 2008, Voss demonstrates that by making the effort to try and uncover these Black Swans can lead to positive and highly desirable outcomes.

Black Swans in UX

Uncovering previously unplanned and unpredicted behaviors or needs in UX grants us a significant opportunity to innovate, disrupt and make significant gains in how we engage with users and customers.

One of the best examples of the impact of a ‘Black Swan’ in UX is the infamous case study by UIE known as the $300 million dollar button.

In this instance, a very simple form on a major retail site was the subject of scrutiny. It was a simple form that we’ll all be familiar with: the login form that almost always immediately follows the hitting ‘checkout’ from your basket. The form gave the user two options; either login to your account to proceed or register for a new account.

Whilst the creators of the site had produced a form that was easy to use and well designed when UIE performed qualitative user research on the form they discovered something quite unforeseen. By forcing the user to have an account before completing a purchase they had created an ‘emotional’ barrier that was totally unpredicted. Users of the site didn’t want to commit to having yet another e-commerce account and so resisted purchasing. As one user put it: “I’m not here to be in a relationship”.

Up until this point, it not had not even been a consideration that a form would be subject to the ‘emotional’ decision-making discussed earlier. The site designers didn’t even know there was a problem – to them the form was well designed and optimised.

The idea that consumers would feel like they didn’t want to make a commitment is a great example of a Black Swan in UX – an ‘unknown unknown’ that simply hadn’t been considered and as such it’s consequences completely unpredicted with huge impact.

By conducting qualitative research with the users directly and empathising with their emotional needs (rather than purely objective needs), they were able to uncover a ‘Black Swan’ that had both a very simple solution and delivered an additional $300 million in revenue every year.

Uncovering your own ‘Black Swans’

As Rumsfeld put it “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me”. Your first step, then, is to ensure you are proactively delving into the unknown in order to unearth Black Swans.

By conducting qualitative research then allows you apply ‘tactical empathy’ to engage with your users to encourage them to open up and demonstrate their emotional motivations and how they ‘feel’ about the experience, rather than simply whether something is easy to use.

Hunting down your Black Swans opens opportunities to achieve a step change in your UX (and therefore your business) performance.

For more information on uncovering opportunities in your user experiences, email


Andrew Machin
Andrew Machin

With over 15 years’ experience in web design and digital marketing Andrew has helped many brands, both in the UK and US, create exceptional digital experiences, from websites to in-store retail experiences, such as John Lewis, Jet2, Virgin Holidays and Interflora.

Through the success of such projects Andrew has received accolades that include high-profile awards that span innovation, strategy, design and results such as the Dadi Grand Prix Award and the Digital Impact Award for Innovation.

This experience has led to Andrew judging digital design awards, been featured in .net magazine, lecturing at Leeds university and speak at seminars and conferences across the UK.

Follow Andrew @The_Machin

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