Why Ask Why?

A Designer’s Thoughts on Design Thinking

Matt Domina
Jan 12, 2017 · 6 min read

Start with the problem, not the solution. It sounds too obvious to be good advice, but it’s an integral part of thinking like a designer. Starting with the problem means starting by asking questions. Lots of questions. Enough questions to test the patience of even the most disciplined of coworkers. Questions about why the problem arose and the context that surrounds it. Questions about why it exists and why it hasn’t been solved yet. Questions that seek to define the problem by continually asking why. These questions are necessary because they lead us to discover the true problem and all its complications. This fundamental understanding of a problem and the context that surrounds it is what forms the basis for design thinking.

Design thinking simply means solving a problem in a human-centered way. Taking what you’ve learned from all your questions and applying that knowledge to a solution that has meaning to the user or delivers real value to the audience. Design thinking has the potential to uncover new ideas and validate them early, before a small misstep becomes a large obstacle. It opens up unseen paths to creative solutions, but more importantly insures you’re solving the right problem at the right time. Design thinking encourages you to consider and understand the audience you’re solving for, dig down to the heart of an obstacle and deliver something meaningful to them.

The more people that are thinking holistically and asking “why” for every problem, the easier it is to pull our solutions forward into new and creative territory

Design thinking can work on an individual level. You can analyze and question problems you’re given in your day-to-day work. But to see real benefits within an organization, this type of problem solving should permeate every decision in every department. The more people that are thinking holistically and asking why for every problem, the easier it is to pull our solutions forward into new and creative territory. But this is where we run up against our biggest roadblock. Analytical and creative cultures are inherently difficult to integrate. Tim Brown, CEO of human-centered design pioneer IDEO, believes this is because “analytical cultures traditionally start with an answer, and then break the problem down into its constituent parts, whereas creative cultures start with questions and look at problems holistically.

When you approach a problem with the answer already developed there is no room to discover much outside of that solution. There is the danger of following false assumptions and settling for simply iterating on previous ideas. Tackling a problem through questions doesn’t automatically negate these dangers. The types of questions you ask are just as important as your approach. Asking how questions: how do I make this better? How do I make this faster? Will often lead down the same path as approaching a problem through an answer. How questions presuppose a solution, and seek to iterate on it.

Apple continually creates innovative products not by asking how, but why. The first iPhone was not created by asking how do we make mobile phone calls easier, or how do we make a contextual keyboard on a phone? How do we shrink the iPod, or how do we deliver websites outside of the home? If Apple simply solved for these problems we would all be walking around with multiple devices in our pockets, all iterations on what came before and none delivering the integrated benefit and groundbreaking innovation we know now. Instead, Apple asked why do mobile phones exist and why aren’t they adopted by everyone? Why do users communicate with one another and why have they been using phones to do it? Why would a person want to carry a device around with them and why would they engage with it?

“Why” questions are an ideal way to engage with an unknown problem and gain full context of a situation

Asking a why question will deliver much more value and understanding of the problem. Why does this problem exist? Why has it never been addressed before? These types of why questions are an ideal way to engage with an unknown problem and gain full context of a situation. Building up an understanding by layering questions until you’re able to generate a solution that delivers real benefit and adds value to the user.

It’s natural to leap forward into thinking of a solution when you encounter a problem. The problem and answer flow happens organically and instantly, with little investigation or analysis. Even when your solution feels obvious it is important to step back and ask why. Why did you come to this solution and does it solve your problem? Why do you want to execute it in a certain way and why did you chose this execution over another? Most importantly, what problem are you actually solving? Is it the right problem to tackle now? Should you think bigger or smaller? Approach it in a different way or reframe the problem entirely? Running through a series of why questions and engaging in the design thinking process will help to solidify those ideas and generate an avalanche of new and creative solutions. At the very least, it will validate your assumptions and assure you that you’re on the right track.

Working through these types of questions on your own or within your team will always lead to a solution that works in a meaningful way and delivers value to your user. Design doesn’t always need to be involved in order to facilitate design thinking, or produce a designed outcome. These are teachable skills that can be applied by anyone in any department. This process encourages you to think differently about your problem and ask questions of your solution. Validate your assumptions to be sure you’re moving in the right direction. Make sure you’re solving the right problems, the ones truly standing in your way.

Make sure you’re solving the right problems, the ones truly standing in your way

Incorporating these design thinking principles into your daily workflow is a slow process. It is a pattern that needs to be trained, developed until it becomes habit. It is often difficult to create an atmosphere in which solutions don’t need to be provided immediately, to be comfortable delving into context and questioning the problem. It is useful to constantly remind yourself to think about the situation and how the problem fits into it. To think about why you are here solving this specific problem at this time. To remember that you can never ask too many questions, and know that as you build up your understanding of a problem, a thorough and creative solution will always present itself.

Working through the design thinking methodology opens the door to gaining context and understanding your audience. It allows you to re-frame the problem and sets the stage for a thoughtful creative process. There exists a potential for all participants to unlock new and innovative ideas, and develop a lasting solution. It puts the problem first and works towards a solution through understanding.

I encourage you to always start with the problem. Not an answer, not a hypothesis, not a solution. Commit to exploring the complications, examining the circumstances and questioning your assumptions. Creativity and innovation are there to be uncovered by anyone willing to ask why, anyone willing to seek context and build an understanding of a problem. Often it’s not a single stroke of brilliance in which creative solutions are found, but instead a meticulous investigation of context which reveals an inspired idea. Design thinking is a set of principles intended for everyone in an organization through which real, impactful, and meaningful change can occur.

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