Assumptions, assumptions — how NCVO started talking about what we know (and what we think we know)

Megan Gray
4 min readJan 7, 2019

Before Christmas I started this series of blog posts about the radical changes to our technology that will allow us to scale our impact without increasing our cost base, and how we developed our strategy. The first post talked about what triggered it all and the second post described how we started to make sense of what we had (our digital ecology).

This post is all about my favourite tool — the knowledge board.

What do you (really) know?

A knowledge board, or assumptions board as it is sometimes known, is a simple but powerful tool. It has become so central to how we work that I’ve almost forgotten how powerful it was to start using it with colleagues at NCVO. It was the fantastic CAST that introduced me to the tool, which is simply a way of capturing:

  • What you know (backed up by evidence)
  • What you think you know (gut feel, hunches — need to be checked and validated)
  • What you don’t know (but wish you did)

It is a great way to shift conversations with stakeholders from what they want, to what they know (or don’t yet know) about user needs and behaviours.

This is how my colleague Myles describes what this felt like. Myles is one of those people you love to work with — hugely experienced and knowledgeable (in this case about all things to do with voluntary sector management and governance).

With twenty years’ experience working and volunteering in the sector, it sometimes felt a little challenging to have to say with confidence what we knew. Or to admit that something was an assumption, with limited evidence beyond my usual ways of doing things. But it was ultimately satisfying to uncover what we did know, and it was also useful to clarify and say what we were not so sure of.

And this is how Sophie, NCVO’s digital programme manager, feels about knowledge boards.

Knowledge boards have been an incredibly useful tool for helping the digital team and our stakeholders identify our assumptions about our users and how they interact with us online. Gathering and prioritising requirements can sometimes be challenging, with lots of different voices and competing ideas, but the knowledge board exercise unifies colleagues with different agendas by forcing us all to stand back, really think about the gaps in our understanding and decide what we need to learn about our users’ needs so we can put them first. It’s also a really engaging way to bring together a newly-formed project team.

Working out what we wanted to know

So, back in 2017 we wanted to understand how users experienced our portfolio of websites. Our overarching assumption was that they found it difficult, so we unpicked that assumption and broke it down into a number of things we thought we knew:

We think we know that…people find it difficult to navigate between the different sites and services

This felt right to us because of our experience talking to people from voluntary organisations on the phone and talking them through how to find the information they needed. We’d also done some really enlightening user testing, which included a task where users needed to find our online training about governance (hint: you wouldn’t have found it in the ‘training’ section of…)

We think we know that…people don’t know the breadth of what NCVO offers

Again, this was based on our experience of talking to people about their needs and helping them to find what they needed.

We think we know that…the fact that different sites look, are structured, and behave differently, is jarring for users and damages their experience

This was a pure assumption. For our colleagues who would spend a good part of their day on the sites it just didn’t feel good.

We think we know that…people are confused about the difference between NCVO and Knowhow Nonprofit

We would sometimes have people ask us why we had these different sites. But again, it was a way of articulating something that we believed. For many colleagues working inside the NCVO bubble, having separate sites made no sense. I would tend to get very defensive at this point, particularly at any suggestion that we should ‘just’ merge them!

Talking about the assumptions above led to discussions about user behaviour, which revealed the following things that we felt we didn’t understand at all:

  • We don’t know…about the overlap of users of different sites and services
  • We don’t know…whether people are visiting more than one site in one visit
  • We don’t know…how important the NCVO home page is to users

And the big one:

  • We don’t know…the key things users want NCVO to help them do online

And there were some very tentative things that had to do with data. As I described back in my first post, one of the big complex problems that we didn’t fully understand, let alone know how to deal with, was to do with integrations with business systems. So:

  • We think we know that…some people (possibly members) want one place to view their relationship (meaning membership?) with NCVO
  • We think we know that…people want one place to view their transactions with NCVO
  • We think we know that…people want to easily manage the data NCVO hold about them (but which data, and from which product(s)?)
  • We think we know that… people want single sign-on across all NCVO sites and services.

In my next post I’ll talk about the experience of testing our assumptions, through user interviews and data analysis, and what our knowledge board looked like once we had this new data and insight.

If you’d like to read more about knowledge boards, this is a great post from Kieron Kirkland, previously of CAST, written when he was on secondment to GDS.

I don’t have any pictures of us with our knowledge board, but here’s one from CAST