How asking why can solve your design problems

4 min read
Ryder Carroll
  •  Jan 27, 2015
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We usually perceive design problems as obstacles standing between us and our goal. But that’s just one way of seeing them. Viewed through another lens, they can provide context, structure, and, most valuably, new ways of thinking.

How do you shift your perspective like that? Just ask “Why?”

The 5 Whys

Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota and father of the Japanese industrial revolution, invented and used a technique called “The 5 Whys” to uncover the causes of technical problems in his company’s manufacturing process. It’s a deceptively simple method to unearth root issues and expose unexpected opportunities.

To use “The 5 Whys,” first identify and state the problem. Then, just ask yourself “why”—and answer—5 times. (You can go further, if necessary, but 5 iterations usually gets to the heart of the problem.)

Here’s an example.

Problem: users don’t understand the product’s value proposition

  1. Why? Because they feel that problem has already been solved.
  2. Why? Because they think this product is the same as a competitor’s.
  3. Why? Because there are similarities in the products.
  4. Why? Because they’ve only partially solved the issue.
  5. Why? Because their solution is missing X, the main feature that sets us apart.

In this case, we’ve identified that the issue isn’t so much the product’s design as the messaging behind the design. It’s not focusing users on a central feature that not only differentiates our product from the other guys’, but also solves the problem more completely.

Good communication transforms information into understanding.Twitter Logo In its absence, even the best design can fail.

It’s a deceptively simple method to unearth root issues and expose unexpected opportunities.

I ran into a similar problem while I was working on Paintapic, a personal project that lets you turn a photo into a custom paint-by-number kit. We were running a closed beta and realized that users just didn’t understand that they’d have to paint the picture themselves. Big issue.

We created dozens of concepts and messages based on user feedback. Some versions featured detailed photographs of the kit, some showed painted-in canvases, other were fun illustrative tutorials. Messaging couldn’t have been clearer (or so we thought) and still, a lot of blank faces. People kept thinking we’d send them a pre-painted canvas.

Finally, we started deconstructing how we were communicating with our users, asking ourselves which parts of our story resonated and which parts didn’t. It turned out we were simply telling the wrong story.

We were targeting hobbyists and crafters—people who are more interested in buying an experience than a product. Up to that point, we’d focused on highlighting the end product because we assumed the experience of painting it was self-explanatory, a side benefit.

It turned out we were simply telling the wrong story.

But as soon as we refocused on the painting experience, it clicked. People suddenly understood the product—and got excited about it.

Of all the innovations it took to launch the product, few were as impactful as our improved messaging.

But what happens if you can’t find a solution?

Though you can solve many challenges in multiple ways, there will come a time when you’re simply stuck. You’re either not coming up with solutions, or the ones you do come up with just don’t work.

In these moments, it helps step back and work on something completely differentTwitter Logo: a personal creative sprint.

A personal creative sprint involves taking on a small side project lasting up to a week. There are 3 rules:

  1. It can’t be directly related to what you’re currently working on.
  2. You can only work on it for a limited time (hence “sprint”).
  3. You must finish the project on deadline. That’s critical: there must be a beginning, middle, and an end.

The key here is to find something very different to fully demand your attentionTwitter Logo, to shift your mental gears for a bit. It’s also about enjoying the feeling of progress and accomplishment.

If you’re on your own, build that microsite, tackle that photo gallery, take a weekend intensiveTwitter Logo on that skill you keep putting off. If you’re part of a team, chances are you work with some pretty talented and interesting folks, so get to know them! Run that hackathon. Build a bell that reminds John to stop wiggling his leg all the time …

No, this won’t help you magically dream up a solution. But it will let in some fresh air and recalibrate your problem-solving skills. When you do suit back up, you’ll be ever so slightly different than you were the last time you tried to tackle this challenge, and that can make all difference.

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