The ‘why?’ of things

Crumpled paper with ‘why?’ typed on it.

One thing I have noticed about a lot of people doing user experience design work; Many have backgrounds in human studies like anthropology, sociology, psychology, or HCDE. All these fields evaluate human behavior from similar perspectives. The common question they all ask is ‘why?’

For people in those fields, ‘why’ is such an important and intriguing question. Behavioral studies focus on this question almost exclusively. It provides the catalyst for behaviors and feelings. As a sociologist, I always want to know why someone acts or feels the way they do. For me it is important to know what drives their emotional states. ‘Why’ also is important in story-telling, science, biology and human nature. Why is the movie bad guy so evil? Why does the Earth have an atmosphere? Why do some people care about the environment and others don’t? These types of questions aim to get at the heart of a problem, not just solve it or explain the outcomes. We need the why to fully understand the mechanics of what is at work here. As a simple explanation in 1997's James Bond film, ‘Tomorrow never dies,’ evil media mogul Elliot Carver explains the importance of ‘why’;

Evil bond villain, Elliot Carver.

“When I was sixteen, I went to work for a newspaper in Hong Kong. It was a rag, but the editor taught me one important lesson. The key to a great story is not who, or what, or when, but why.”

That quote left a strong impression on me just when I was starting my studies in sociology. I haven’t forgotten it since. I don’t remember any of my professors repeat this maxim, but I have no doubt they did. ‘Why’ is the reason we study things; we want to know why something is or why it behaves the way it does. The way to get this information is to ask ‘why?’

So we understand that asking “why” is important. Applying this question to our projects and studies can be very beneficial to developing good products or improving relationships with our friends. Knowing why people prefer this versus that helps connects each other and bring empathy to our lives. All designers and UX professionals want to create products that people need and love (desirability and usability). This will not happen without finding out why along with the usual battery of questions.

For the doubtful, an example might help. Say that a user did not like a particular button or feature. You might ask how they would change it or what about it they disliked. Do you also ask why they did not like it? I would be interested to know that a user abhors red buttons (or red in general) because they were gored by a bull while wearing red pants in Pamplona Spain at age 7 during the famed ‘Running of the Bulls.’ This is an exaggeration of a reasonable response and if true would be too specific to design a product around. Following that response though, I might wonder what else on the page might trigger negative connotations that person wishes to avoid? Or you might ask why they don’t like red there? Maybe all the users didn’t like the red button. If you don’t ask why, you might not learn that they all felt warm colors were inappropriate for that button. Maybe they all prefer a blue! You would not know unless you asked why.

Other people’s reasons don’t become apparent to us unless we ask them why. Why do you feel this way about this subject? Why does the red button trouble you, but yellow is ok? Knowing their reasons might help you avoid other mistakes when trying to appeal to them. On one website redesign I worked on our primary goal was to increase donations. We experimented with placement and appearances of a donation button. My first attempt fell flat because it offended some people. We had to go a couple rounds with users to discover why they hated it and how we could make it work for them. At the end of the day that ‘donate’ button was part of the product so we had to discover how to make it appeal to users. To do that properly we had to ask why.

For those unaccustomed to asking ‘whys’, here is a way to practice to really understand the power of ‘why’:

  1. Start by asking yourself some questions about your feelings. Think about a topic, like ‘why are you happy when it rains?’

Write down your answer.

2. Then ask why to that written response.

Write down your answer.

3. Then ask why to the second written response.

Write down you answer.

4. If you can stretch it, ask ‘why’ a total of five times. Each time you ask ‘why,’ you are trying to get a more specific response on your feelings. It can be difficult to continue, but it can be very eye-opening too. You may never have thought that deeply about a topic before. This technique is called the ‘five whys,’ popularized by Kanban project management. It is great for problem solving or designer/writer’s block situations.

You may not always have time to get the ‘why’ or it may not be important for every aspect of the product, but if you can get to the ‘why’ of things if you will dramatically improve the greatness of your product, empathize more with your users or have a clearer understanding of your end goals.

A UX Designer in a UX Designer world