by Lukasz Lysakowski

The Unknown Knowns of Design

How Donald Rumsfeld’s Infamous Quote Applies to Design


It seems like almost every day there is new news of a technology product being subverted in ways their creators never imagined or intended. As a designer of technology services, the consistent barrage of these stories have made me think. How can we as designers prevent unforeseen consequences in our work? While considering this topic, I recalled Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous quote the “Unknown Knowns”. I realized that it serves as a framework to address these consequences.

First, the History of Rumsfeld’s “Unknown Knowns”

In the wake of the September 11th terror attacks, anger drove the United States and its leaders to enact revenge. Afghanistan and Iraq became the focus of retribution due to their history of direct and indirect support of terror groups. As a result, the leaders of the United States argued both countries were to be invaded.

The invasion of Afghanistan was a more straightforward sell. As the Taliban, which controlled the country, also gave shelter to the masterminds of the terror attacks. The justification to invade Iraq was on shakier ground, as the country had no direct involvement in the terror attacks.

American leaders argued that the invasion was justified. American leaders argued that Iraq possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction and was willing to supply them to terrorists. But this argument was based on flimsy evidence.

On February 12, 2002, before the invasion of Iraq, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Secretary of Defense, was questioned about the flimsy evidence confirming that Iraq was supplying WMDs to terror groups. Donald Rumsfeld dodged the question by giving an infamous response:

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. — Via Wikipedia

Of course, the reply was cynical, and Rumsfeld avoided the real reason for the invasion. It also served to recuse him from the catastrophe that he brought to the Iraqi people and American service members.

The quote stuck in the back of my head. I did not know what to do with it, but occasionally I would dig it up and reread it. Finally, the quote started to have relevance to me as I began to think about it regarding design.

How Rumsfeld’s Quote Applies to Design

Known Knowns

“There are things we know we know.”

The proper human-centered design process requires user input and feedback. Designers and user researchers implement research to understand user problems. In return, they discover the success criteria to solve them. Research methodology is diverse. It can include user interviews, field observations, surveys, and quantitative tracking. These are critical to understanding issues and their solutions. When a designer implements a user researched design process, their work becomes based on the things that they know they know.

If a designer has not adequately researched the problem or understands if the solution benefits the end user, then the designer is operating in the Known Unknowns.

Known Unknowns

“That is to say, we know there are some things we do not know”

As designers, Known Unknowns occur when we know we have not fully implemented a human-centered design process. We know that we either don’t understand the root of the problem, or we didn’t spend enough time testing solutions. We know that our potential solution is lacking informed choices. As designers, it’s critical for us to raise this issue and initiate action to answer these unknowns.

Launching a design without answering a Known Unknown can potentially jeopardize the project, the company, the end user, and possibly yourself. As a designer, you need to explain the open questions, because you don’t want to waste everyone’s time and money, and don’t want to cause harm to yourself or others.

Unknown Unknowns

“The ones we don’t know we don’t know”

Next comes two difficult quadrants. First the Unknown Unknowns, how do you find out Knowns that you don’t even know? I don’t know the answer, but I do think as designers we can address this issue by finding new ways to expand our perspectives.

An accessible way to increase our perspective is to read more and read beyond articles on tech/design. Science fiction books might be a great genre, as Sci-Fi often speculates about the future. Sci-Fi dwells on the negative as much as it features positive aspects of technological change.

As designers, we also need to talk to people to be comfortable with research. One way to get more comfortable with people is to meet people outside of our comfort zone and maybe even talk to strangers. Another idea is to walk a different path to school or work. Also, travel is an excellent way to reset.

In the tech industry, we tend to view our work through a positive lens, focused on its benefits (designers included). But we must also look at the negatives of our products and services. To find negative consequences of our work, as I previously mentioned, we must break out of our daily routine. We must approach our process with new and different methodologies. Otherwise we will be blind to unknown and unintentional consequences.

Unknown Knowns

“Things you think you know that it turns out you did not know”

The “Unknown Knowns” is the trickiest quadrant to address. How do you find out that what you think you know is actually wrong? It’s a contradiction, and like all contradictions, it’s difficult to resolve.

As designers, we sometimes think that we are all-knowing, especially when it concerns end users. But designers are not superhuman. So how do we as designers address thinking we know something when we don’t understand it?

Similar to Unknown Unknowns, I believe that we can address this problem by getting out of our groupthink. We need to get outside of our social circles. We need to expand our interests and things we do. We need to talk with people with different experiences than our immediate social circles.

At work, we need to sponsor hiring people that are not part of our network. We also need to hire people with varying vantage points. As designers, we also need to meet different team members, people on entirely separate teams. Their experiences will inform us about how a product and service is or can be used in ways that we as designers cannot imagine.


User research is the core of human-centered design. Human-centered design is a framework that guides designers to create products that solve user needs.

To understand user needs, designers must first define the problem by practicing a user research methodology. The framework allows designers to identify potential solutions based on qualitative and quantitative input instead of solely on their personal assumptions.

Furthermore, to work towards preventing Unknown Unknowns and Unknown Knowns we must expand beyond our comfort zones. We can achieve this by reading more. We can connect with people beyond our social circles, and hiring people with different experiences. The goal is for us as designers to broaden our perspectives to preempt our Unknowns.

Errol Morris and The Unknown Known

If you are still curious about this topic, Errol Morris explored the quote, its meaning, and its speaker in detail. He published a three-part series for the New York Times and directed The Unknown Known. The trailer is an amazing preview of Rumsfeld’s ability to spin language and meaning.

The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld (Part 1)
Four kinds of persons: zeal without knowledge; knowledge without zeal; neither knowledge nor zeal; both zeal and…

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