How to map your fears

Use pre-mortems to guide your research strategy and align stakeholders.

Pre-mortems and design studios are two of my favorite workshops in my product/ux toolkit. They’re my go-to options whenever a project is just starting out, stuck, or unfocused, and I usually run some version of each on every project I tackle, sometimes more than once.

What’s a pre-mortem?

In a nutshell, a pre-mortem is a group exercise to brainstorm potential risks associated with launching a product or feature. Instead of conducting a “post-mortem” where you examine what went wrong, you can hold a pre-mortem to anticipate what could go wrong, and then plan/test/research accordingly.

In a pre-mortem session, everyone might jot down potential risks on post-it notes (whether big, small, or totally ludicrous). Then the team plots the post-its based on size of risk and likeliness, and brainstorms ways to mitigate the major risks.

Why they’re the best:

1. They help you avoid the avoidable.

At their heart, pre-mortems are about assessing and analyzing potential risks so you can plan for them now. They’re an exercise in thinking things through, respecting people’s time and energy, and making solid research plans and product roadmaps.

One of the great things about a pre-mortem is that it can take into account potential failures at all levels (as long as you get the right people in the room):

  • Business: “This new product offering X cannibalizes product offering Y”
  • Product/UX: “Users drop off because the onboarding flow is too tedious.”
  • Tech: “Rendering this content creates slow page load times”
  • Community: “Our users are upset because we didn’t give them enough privacy controls”
  • Brand: “This feature goes against our brand story of keeping products dead simple.”

2. They’re great elephant detectors/peace-of-mind givers.

Pre-mortems are also a great way for people to get concerns off their chest and get any elephants in the room out in the open early on. For folks who have a tendency to boil the ocean (I’m sometimes guilty of this one), this is also a way to let them think about a problem more exhaustively, but in a time-boxed manner.

If you didn’t start with a pre-mortem, they’re still a great exercise to do in the middle of a project, especially if you’re experiencing resistance or disengagement from team members or stakeholders.

3. They put the stake in stakeholder.

Pre-mortems allow you to get everyone who you think should care in a room. This is good. Now you can actually make them care, by impressing them with how much you care!

People will appreciate that you’re giving them context and asking for their input early on. You’ve also now reminded them that they have skin in the game, which means they’ll be more likely to see themselves as active participants in the outcome of the project.

4. They let you own the story

Pre-mortems serve as great kick-off meetings because they help you get everyone on the same page re: the project at hand, while tying it back to their own work.

You get to tell the story of why this product or feature is important, while weaving in your stakeholders and team members (and users!) as characters in the story as well.

5. They tell you what to do next

What do you do with everyone’s fears? Assuage them.

Figure out how likely they are to happen, how impactful they are, and then put them to rest, one by one. Well-defined fears can guide your research strategy, user interview scripts, usability testing, roadmap, and upcoming milestones. They can illuminate you what you don’t know so you can track down the people who do. They can give everyone a shared focus and help light the way forward.

Not only do you now have the beginnings of a plan to ensure a project will be successful on all levels, you’ve also:

  • Encouraged key players to think critically and creatively about their role early on
  • Reminded everyone they have skin in the game
  • Made it more likely that they’ll proactively respond to further updates down the road and offer resources and goodwill

And you can do all that in under an hour!

“This was the best meeting ever!” people will say.

When should I run them?

When you’re:

  • Starting any big project
  • Handed a directive from the business
  • Exploring a potential market, partnership, or business
  • Sending out a survey
  • Determining what research method(s) to use to validate a hypothesis
  • Creating a user interview guide
  • Determining tasks for a usability test
  • Figuring out what ideas to build on after a design studio
  • Trying to prioritize features/create a roadmap
  • Just joining a project where risks, assumptions, or hypotheses haven’t been defined
  • Feeling stuck, unfocused, or overwhelmed
  • Experiencing resistance or apathy from stakeholders (a way to find out why)

Who should run them?

Product owners/managers. UX Designers. Researchers. Anyone. You, probably. It’ll be fun!

How do I run one?

  1. Supplies: Get a room with whiteboard space and/or poster-size post-its. Get post-its, sharpies, and a timer.
  2. Set the stage (10 minutes max)

This is the storytelling part. Create a one-sheeter or a few slides outlining the scope and goals of the task at hand, the key and secondary stakeholders and their roles, the current status, general next steps/timeline, background research, etc. Include this in your kick-off presentation in addition to sending it out beforehand (at least a day or two earlier if you can). Leave time for introductions if necessary.

If this is a smaller or more contained project with only a few stakeholders (e.g. a usability test), this can be shorter or more informal, but it’s still important to re-iterate the goals and context.

3. Silent brainstorming, one fear per post-it (5 min increments)

Silent writing allows everyone’s voices to be heard. Timeboxing helps keep the juices flowing. Depending on the scope of the project, you may need several 5 minute timeboxes to touch on all aspects of a project or areas of a design.

4. Group share + initial cluster (10–15 minutes)

Go around the room and have people read each of their post-its out loud, then put it on the wall. If others have a similar post-its, stack or cluster them together.

5. Additional mapping and clustering (10–15 minutes)

Go back and look through the post-its. Plot them out based on their likeliness and size of risk (your best guesses for now). This could be done with a smaller subset of the group (and shared out later) if there are many stakeholders involved. You may want to try dot-voting with circle stickers to get a sense of how important certain topics are.

You’re not done yet!

Now that you’ve mapped the risks, it’s time to brainstorm how you’ll mitigate them. Use different color post-it notes to annotate your clusters with ways to prevent them. It might involve a specific user research method, a task for a usability test, an investigation or conversation with another team, or an adjustment of your roadmap or prioritization.

Whatever you decide, create a summary of the pre-mortem and the action items and share with everyone who attended.

Variations

  • In addition to mapping fears/risks, you may also want to brainstorm assumptions, hypothesis, or open questions (especially for big projects). Time box 5–10 minutes for each; and try different ways of affinity mapping and clustering to make sense of the post-its. You can still do the same exercise of pairing each important cluster with a way to investigate or move forward.
  • Try running the exercise in a google spreadsheet. Have everyone add their risks to a spreadsheet. Then go over them in a group to flesh out the details/prioritize/vote. Your columns might include:
  • Name of Risk
  • Size of Risk (1–5)
  • Likeliness (1–5)
  • Area of Impact (Business, Brand, Tech, etc)
  • Potential Metrics/Quantitative Validation Methods
  • Potential Qualitative Validation Methods

The spreadsheet might always be a good way to capture the results of the post-it session.

Tips and Tricks

  • Make every risk include a “because.” “Site crashes” is not as useful as “Site crashes because serves couldn’t handle the requests.” “Engagement drops” is not as useful as “Engagement drops because users find the new onboarding flow tedious.”
  • No self-editing. Encourage people to get everything on the table, even things that seem silly or unlikely. It’ll help get everyone’s juices flowing and may spark valuable insights.
  • Silence is key. It’s easy for a few voices to dominate a session. Silent, solo writing ensures everyone’s voice is heard.
  • Follow up and follow through. A good pre-mortem keeps things moving forward. If you’re going to run one, make sure you share the results AND follow through with the next steps (or keep people posted on the direction you take). This exercise is meant to help you, not just pay lip service to stakeholders. And if you’re not actually doing anything with their input, all that good will and investment you created will dissipate.

Sample template

I made a quick and dirty template for running your pre-mortem and sharing out results. I included assumptions and hypotheses slides (in addition to risks). Use the framework slides for the session, then add the summary slides after and re-share after with the group. Get the Google slide template .


Talisa Chang is a interdisciplinary product and UX consultant who likes to help teams learn before they build.

Check out some of Talisa’s user research tips: You are the best user researcher ever »