Design Research Method – Presumptive Design

Business Challenge

Image of front cover of book, Presumptive Design: Design Provocations for Innovation

Organizations struggle to invest in research. Historically, research methods are time-consuming and they don't always result in actionable insights the business can use immediately.

Presumptive Design is an approach I landed on (I made up the term in 2004, but have been using similar processes since the mid-1980s) to address both of these concerns.

But just because I had a system didn't mean everyone would immediately understand it, how to apply it, or get trained on its details. And just because I had a book didn't mean it would sell itself.


Tenniel's illustration from Carroll's "Alice Through the Looking Glass" in which the unicorn admonishes Alice for her inability to cut looking glass cakes

Presumptive Design is like the Looking-glass Cake: serve it first, then slice it

Diagram illustrating PrD's velocity through multi-disciplinary teams working together

By including the whole team in the process, PrD reduces time to insights and reduces loss of information

Creation Session

Photo of PrD artifact during a PrD workshop

Example of a PrD artifact

A 400+ page book, published by Morgan Kaufmann with 100s of figures and illustrations, including contributions by many leading figures in UX.

In addition, the book has spawned a series of workshops, tech talks and online discussions as organizations begin to learn more about how it can reduce their time to insights.

And of course, a website, the design for which I was also responsible.


Image of original book proposal table of contents, marked up with changes

Example of editing in process

Image of spreadsheet designed to track the co-author's tasks

Project plan snippet

Image of one reviewer's comments and markup of an early draft

Example of late stage editing cycle with figure.

Image of one reviewer's comments and markup of an early draft

Excerpt from final round of galley editing

An image of a google sheet designed to track images used in the book

Tracking system for all figures, including third party contributions

Writing a book is pretty difficult. Writing it with a co-author could be difficult, but in this case, Charles Lambdin and I collaborated beautifully. 

After we decided we'd consider writing a book, we approached numerous publishers. Our effort began in earnest when we started crafting the applications for submittal: a table of contents, an example chapter, a pro-forma business case, competitive offerings and the like.

Once Morgan Kaufmann struck a deal, we wrote 75% of the book in about six weeks. After receiving our reviewer comments, we rewrote the book completely, striking chapters, and adding new ones. After a final round of reviews, we completely rewrote the book a second time, tightening the prose. By this time, six months had passed since our initial rough draft.

And then the manuscript editing process began. With over 14 revision cycles, including a false start with the initial printing run, the book finally made it to the shelves - almost 15 months after we had begun.

Collaboration | Contributions

Image of color scheme for book chapters

Color schemes for book chapters

Image of book design markups - early version

Markup of book design

Although I coined the term Presumptive Design back in 2004, I have been using the method most of my professional career. Charles and I don't claim to have "invented" the method, we're just the first to write a detailed "how-to" book about it. I was responsible for 50% of the writing, and most of the editing and revisions. Charles and I crafted almost all of the illustrations, together and separately, with the exception of some excellent pieces generously provided to us by their creators. I was responsible for negotiating the contract with MK, along with all other legal and operational efforts.

An enterprise as large as creating a book takes a team of people. We are indebted to many individuals who helped us improve on our initial drafts, not the least of which were our reviewers, Tim Piwonka-Corle and the late, great Steve Sato. In addition to Steve challenging us to think more deeply about our arguments, he contributed a case study to the book. Steve will be greatly missed.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to our associate, Kim Buckley for the book's visual design and layout . Kim worked with us to create the initial font, layout, color and stylings. Once she had established a good foundation, I continued the effort throughout the publishing process.

And of course, we couldn't have done it without our team at MK. Our editor, copy-editors and copy-setters who went through 14 separate revisions and a complete reprint. The final result is all the better for their diligence.