The magic of the word “why”

Flora 원선 Baik

The very question that may differentiate you from the rest of the candidates when interviewing for the company — for the better or for worse. By far the most predictable yet hardest essay prompt to answer for a college or a masters program application. The core of what it means to be a User Experience (UX) Designer.

Why do you want to work here?
Why do you want to go this school?
Why did you make this design decision instead of that?
Why?

As much as I would like to give this word a side eye glare for long 5 seconds, I have learned to understand the importance of sitting in that uncomfortable space of not knowing how to answer the question. Why?

It aligns actions with intent.

I probably went on most number of interviews among my friends upon graduating college. I was getting to many final round interviews, but they didn’t turn into offers. Over many tears and insecurities, I rationalized what was happening. I realized that even if I had gotten an offer from the company that didn’t offer me the golden ticket, I wouldn’t really be proud of it. I didn’t really want it. Because I didn’t know what I wanted. My intent didn’t extend much further than “getting a job.”

Had I spent a little bit more time focusing on what I prefer in terms of roles, industries, or companies, I would have been able to narrow down my searches, spend a little more time on a fewer companies, be more articulate in answering the “why,” and genuinely share without guilt that I want to be there. There would be no need to convince them or myself in this process. For entry level positions, employers are much more concerned about potential, energy, and enthusiasm rather than technical skills or know-how. Answering the “why” for myself would have been able to better be aligned with where I would like to be, which shows intent.

For one of my UX clients, my team was tasked to figure out how to increase the referral rate for their service. Our initial finding was that the reward (or the incentive) for the referral program was not enticing enough. The natural response would have been to just up the ante — give better rewards, spray more money. But our team pressed on the “why” and researched the reason why people refer anything to anybody. We found that people make referrals for 3 main reasons: get money, be helpful to friends and family, or increase social capital (be seen as cool, I suppose). And this particular company, the users were more likely to refer for reason number two, so instead of spending our design time to focus on the incentive, we focused mostly on marketing the referral program to raise awareness and have it be accessible at the right time. Had our team not figure out the true “why” as to why this clients’ users desire to refer their services, we would have potentially misaligned our efforts!

It is the key to grow consistency.

Dieting is very difficult for many people. We can debate about what percentage of the variable is dependent on genetics, exercise, diet, or environment. But one thing we can all agree on is that if input is less than output, there is an imbalance and the status quo changes. Most diets fail because it is hard to keep up with a strict regimen, and our bodies are really good at maintaining status quo.

I’ve witnessed many of my friends gain weight upon being a newly wed. While their mothers may be mad (or happy) at their kids’ spouse for such a phenomenon, I think the main reason for this is that the consistency is thrown out the window in their daily routines. More time spent with someone = less space to ask “why” question of what/when they are eating = less consistency in their diet = more pounds.

In the realm of UX, product principles and design systems provide a focus and consistency for a product — in text, color, formation, themes, tone of voice, and many other variables. When a company is being built, it needs to answer the “why” question for every single design decisions. Why blue over red? Why serif over san serif? Why minimalistic theme over more cluttered design with colored accents? Why playful word choices over serious and factual ones? Only once it has answered the “why”, will the company have a set of product principles in which all the subsequent designs can abide by. If there is ever a debate for future designs, these product principles can be revisited to evaluate with more fairness and objectivity. Would it really be Coca-Cola without the graceful font? Would Google be Google without the minimalistic home page with its logo and a search box?

It is the only way to build confidence and a passion.

To go back to the career example, I have had very little luck with career counselors in my life. Many ask what my strengths are and what I like doing. But a lot of times, what I like doing isn’t what I am good at, and what I am good at may not be noticed by me. I think it is an almost futile attempt to try to answer the question “who do I want to be?” and “what do I want to do?” as a college student. But I spent many hours trying to answer that question due to internal and external pressure. That question is too big, too broad, and too unnecessary as a 21 year old.

I now have about 5 years of work experience, and through introspection, I am able to see what kind of topics get me excited to read about, what type of activities can keep me going at 2am, and what is valuable to an organization through my coworkers’ affirmations. While getting experience at different types of companies and industries and trying different roles, I kept asking myself the “why”, and found a pattern in what I wanted to learn and do. I was able to make a career switch and be confident in it — no matter the pay, the organization, or hierarchy. I am now confident in desire to grow as a product designer. My passion is to build products and services that help missional businesses thrive.

Caveat

Sometimes you won’t have the answer. and that’s ok, and sometimes asking the question “why” can be stifling to an extent. Not everything has an answer, and to wait for it is and to not act because of its absence is not always good. To have the courage and maturity to start and to persevere at the right time (or give up at the right time) will get you there.

Who knew that one magic word can help you align intent and action, help you be consistent, and cultivate a passion?

Flora 원선 Baik

Written by

Crazy about design systems that impact personally, relationally, and systemically.

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