Doing a great job answering the wrong questions?

“There is nothing more frustrating than pouring one’s creativity into doing a great job of answering the wrong question,” said design thinking guru Tim Brown in a recent commencement address at UC Berkeley. If you’ve ever designed something—anything from a can opener to a career, from a brochure to a business—you know he was spot on. We need better questions if we’re going to make the kind of difference we want to make in the lives of the people around us. Asking the right questions forces us to focus on the right problems.

Reframe the opportunity.

It is very common for someone else—a client, a CEO, or a constituent—to inadequately frame an opportunity and prematurely deliver specifications. Often these specifications come laden with expectations of which the designer or developer may be completely unaware. For example, I was once asked to develop an application for calculating complicated sales commissions. Once the app was delivered, the client asked why the app couldn’t tell him how many units were sold in each category and at what margin. Honestly, it had never been mentioned before, yet to the client, it was the whole point of the app. Actually, he admitted to me that he didn’t realize it was the whole point of the app until seeing the commission calculations.

It is very tempting to limit ourselves to the “what” questions. What fields to you want to see? What do you want this button to do? It may be expedient for completing a project to leave such decisions up to the customer. The problem with “what” questions is that they typically produce slightly better answers to the wrong questions. In a user interface design project for a young startup, the client framed the opportunity by asking me to “just make this screen look good.” Making it look good was out of the question, as there was far too much data on the screen with no clear purpose. I had to dig deeper, because the challenge was framed incorrectly and based on very wrong assumptions. I had to start asking uncomfortable questions like, “Who is the judge of good?” and “Why do you need all this data?” and, “Why does this matter?”

Reframing the opportunity requires a different set of questions— “why” questions. Asking “why” always cuts deeper and broader, creating possibilities for greater impact in a larger context. Asking “why” can be uncomfortable, because reframing the opportunity can lead to a complete reboot of expectations.

Getting to right: The path to the ultimate question.

One of my favorite design thinking exercises is to come up with a “How might we…?” question. (For simplicity, I’ll abbreviate this with HMW.) A HMW question is about the end rather than the means. It is an ultimate question, exposing presuppositions and opportunities. The HMW question provides a broader context to answer more specific questions, and a narrower context to avoid shooting for unreachable goals.  Coming up with the right HMW is tricky, but achievable.

For example, at first blush, “HMW increase user adoption of our CRM platform?” may sound like a great HMW question. But by digging deeper its flaws are exposed. You could ask why CRM adoption is important? How much engagement is required? (95%+ logging in each day is a good benchmark, by the way.) Which users don’t use it now, and why? Rather than dealing with symptoms of a fundamental problem, wouldn’t it be better to address the root cause? Great HMW questions always address the root issue of a bigger problem.

Here are three steps to get to the right HMW question faster:

Step 1: Focus on users.

User desirability must be at the core of any design opportunity, especially user experience design. This means your HMW question should be centered on a desirable outcome for a specific human audience. Ask whose behavior you wish to change. Ask why changed behavior will lead to an improved result for the user (instead of your company). Instead of “How might we improve customer service?” consider “How might we cut call times by 90% while answering the questions customers ask most often?” Putting users at the center changes the focus from “us” to “others.” The shift is subtle, but very important.

At the core of any great user experience is empathy—walking a mile in the user’s shoes. Think about it. Does a user really care about whether your customer service stats have improved? Nope. Does a user care that you won a design award? Not likely. But does a user care that she can now get answers to her questions in 90% less time? You bet.

Step 2: Broaden the context.

Your HMW questions should consider a large enough context to discover areas of unexpected value. For example, instead of “How might we make commission calculations faster?” you could consider, “How might we close large deals faster?” Always consider the next larger context: a chair is in a room; a room is in a house; a house is in a neighborhood; a neighborhood is in a city. Taking the next larger context into consideration can broaden the opportunity in a powerful way. If you get stuck, ask the question, “Why do we want to do this?” Your answers will help you get to the root of the deeper, broader problem.

Step 3: Narrow the scope.

Your questions and challenges should be manageable enough to make sure you are solving a real, tangible problem. Getting overzealous can lead to solutions that are detached from the felt or real needs of people. “How might we create an awesome user experience?” sounds inviting, but it doesn’t solve a specific problem (other than enhancing a designer's ego). If you want to know if your question is narrow enough, you can ask, “What is preventing us from doing that?” In the above example, you can’t create an awesome experience if the statement does not define “awesome” or who the user is. Get specific, but not so specific that you miss the larger context (see point 2).

Pay attention to the mundane.

The things we take for granted are often the best catalysts for positive change. The most mundane moments in our ordinary daily lives provide windows of insight. Paying attention requires acute powers of observation. Observation is a learned discipline of the best design thinkers. I call this the discipline of awareness. In one sense, it is like becoming childlike in our inquisitiveness. As we age we learn to take far too much for granted, learning to trade in our “why” questions for a habitual acceptance of the status quo. The discipline of awareness means creating a habit of carefully observing and questioning the mundane, taking the time to wonder at the things you take for granted.

Why are manhole covers round? Why do I dress this way to go to work? How do I know how far back to stand from the person in front of me in line? What would it be like to be colorblind? Can a mother with a child in her arms perform this task?

You will be shocked how inspirational it is to look carefully at mundane things.

Make to think.

Show instead of tell. Record your observations and ideas visually, even if it is just a rough sketch or a photo on your phone. Being visual allows us to look at a problem differently than if we rely only on words or numbers.

Pictures put things in context. They show what else is going on. They show the whole idea. Drawing forces you to make decisions about what you want to happen. Don’t worry if you think you can’t draw. Do it anyway.

Don't spend endless hours and millions of dollars writing requirements. Instead, make prototypes. Prototypes can be simple. Use paper and scissors. Draw with markers on whiteboards. Scribble with pencils and paper. It's amazing how many ideas you can bang out and evaluate without hiring a single designer or coder. I've seen videos made of live people behind cardboard cutouts of an iPhone to demonstrate how a video game will work. I've seen entire rooms built with refrigerator boxes to demonstrate how the layout of a lobby might work.

When you make stuff with inexpensive materials, your thinking and creativity is free to shift in real time, because you can adjust your creation in real time at little to no cost. If you move to expensive tools too fast, change gets harder for people to accept psychologically, and innovation slows down. In fact, at Skuid, one of the most important lessons we have to teach customers is that they should just make decisions, bad or good, because with Skuid, it costs you next to nothing to make changes or even revert to a previous version. We built the Skuid platform for "making to think."

Build on the ideas of others.

Leonardo da Vinci did it. Picasso was famous for it. Andy Warhol made it a fine art form. What am I talking about? Building on the ideas of others. In Warhol's case, he actually copied the packaging from popular consumer items, but he did it in such a unique way, people viewed them in a whole new light. As Bono says in his song, The Fly, “Every artist is a cannibal. Every poet is a thief. All kill for inspiration, and then sing about the grief.”

Great ideas evolve. They do not just happen. I remember creating a new logo for a company in less than 15 minutes, but that was only after months of thinking about it, weeks of asking people about it, and leveraging over 30 years of previous design experience. No matter what your parents or teachers told you, you are creative. In fact, you are a creative. If you can adapt the work of others to make it better, you are a creative. If you can socialize and modify an idea as a result, you are a creative. Never fall for the lie of the creative genius. It will freeze you in your tracks.

There you have it. To prevent answering the wrong questions and thereby, solving the wrong problems, you:

  • Reframe the opportunity
  • Pay attention to the mundane
  • Make to think, and,
  • Build on the ideas of others.