Design is more about asking the right questions than having the right answers.
Or, more accurately, design is about first asking the right questions, and then thinking about the answers. We need to describe the problem before we can prescribe a solution.
Uncountable design hours have been spent creating and perfecting solutions to problems that nobody had, or crafting answers to the wrong questions. It doesn’t matter how elegant, clever, or pixel-perfect a solution is if it answers the wrong question. Conversely, if we have the right question, even a solution that’s somewhat off-the-mark can move you in the right direction.
“The easiest way to get better answers is to ask better questions.”
As designers, we know the danger of relying too heavily on our own assumptions—the danger of answering the wrong questions.
So how can we ask better questions?
What are questions for?
Questions are important at every stage of the design process.
When doing user research, questions help us to hone in on the true problems that users are experiencing. They can help us to better understand our audience, and to get past the surface-level issues and identify the underlying causes of users’ needs.
When prototyping and wireframing, questions help us determine if there are other solutions that would work better for our users: Does this button work well here, or would it work better somewhere else?Are there ways to simplify this flow?
When presenting our designs, questions can help us elicit better feedback from project stakeholders. They allow us to pursue a deeper understanding of stakeholder responses, and gather more comprehensive reactions to our work.
How can we ask deep, incisive questions that don’t leave information on the table?
How can we ask better questions?
There are several methods to keep in mind when asking questions, no matter the type of question or the context.
- Keep things open-ended. Nothing shuts down a line of inquiry faster than a yes-or-no question. Ask questions that require a fuller answer. Rather than asking, Does this feature work for you?, ask What would make this feature work better for you? or How do you use this feature?
- Embrace small silences. It’s tempting to fill awkward silences, especially when asking questions. If a respondent pauses for a few seconds, don’t just jump into the next answer—wait to see if they have something else to say. The awkward silence may be the precursor (or catalyst) to the information you’ve been waiting for.
- Ask un-Google-able questions. We can all do research on the internet. Really valuable information comes from questions that need more than a quick search. The best questions need to be grappled with. And they often have answers that require knowledge, not just information.
- Truly listen. Don’t just wait for your turn to speak. Listen to what the respondent is saying, allow a generous pause after they’ve finished answering, and only then ask the next question. If you have a list of questions you’re following, don’t hesitate to deviate if a better question presents itself based on the respondent’s answer.
“Ask un-Google-able questions.”
Frameworks for asking better questions
It’s often helpful to have a framework for inquiry, rather than relying on one-off questions as we think of them. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel—industries older than ours have already developed useful mental tools for asking better questions. We can borrow these techniques freely from the worlds of business, science, law enforcement, and more.
The 5 Whys
The 5 Whys technique was first developed by Taiichi Ohno, the creator of Lean Manufacturing, as a way of determining the root cause of a problem.
Quite simply, you ask Why five times, each time digging deeper into the previous answer. (Five times is a convention, based on the typical anecdotal number of times it takes to reach the root cause. You should continue beyond five if necessary).
An example in design research might be:
Problem: “I don’t like using this task management app.”
Why? “It feels overwhelming.”
Why? “I have lots of tasks marked as overdue.”
Why? “I don’t always remember to check my to-do list.”
Why? “It doesn’t fit the way I think about my to-dos.”
Why? “It shows me everything in one long list, but I want to see just today’s tasks.”
This is a simple example, but it demonstrates the usefulness of continuing to ask “why?” after the initial answer is given. In design, the stated problem isn’t usually the real problem, and until we understand the underlying issue we can’t design a proper solution.
We can get more insightful answers by asking the inverse of the question we need answered, rather than the question itself.
For example, rather than asking “What will make this design successful?” we can ask, “What would make this design fail?”
“Success often comes from avoiding small missteps, not finding one great insight.”
This may seem counterintuitive—of course we want to be pursuing success, not just avoiding failure—but success often comes from avoiding countless small missteps, not finding one great insight.
To quote the wonderful blog Farnam Street, which focuses on useful mental models: “Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.“
Some examples of using inversion:
Question: How can we get users to complete the onboarding process?
Inverse: What would make users abandon onboarding?
Question: What would make a user check this app every day?
Inverse: What would make a user forget about this app for days at a time?
Question: How can I be a great design manager?
Inverse: What would make me a terrible design manager?
The easiest way to get better answers is to ask better questions. This applies at all stages of the design process: research, wireframing, prototyping, presenting, and everywhere in between.
By asking good questions and following those tried-and-true frameworks, we can gather deeper insights, better understand our users, and hone in on solid solutions faster than we could before.
These techniques apply outside our typical work, too—they’re useful for hiring and interviewing, for conflict resolution, and for all sorts of interpersonal communication.
How will you ask better questions?
- How to Ask Better Questions, Harvard Business Review
- The Quest to Ask Better Questions, The Atlantic
- Ask Better Questions, Quintin Carlson on Medium
- Questioning Techniques, MindTools
- The Five Whys, IDEO Design Kit
- 5 Whys, Wikipedia
- Inversion and the Power of Avoiding Stupidity, Farnam Street
- Inversion: The Critical Thinking Skill Nobody Ever Taught You, James Clear
Header image from Inside Design: Prezi.
Jordan Koschei is the lead product designer at Agrilyst, where he helps build the intelligence platform for indoor agriculture. He was previously the managing editor of The Industry, a digital publication that helped pioneer design-oriented coverage of the startup scene. When not designing, writing, or coding, Jordan can be found enjoying life in New York’s beautiful Hudson Valley.