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Ask the right questions, find the right problem

Better Business

August 25, 2015

Ask the right questions, find the right problem

No-one sets out to solve the wrong problem but that's where a lot of people end up. Finding the right problem to solve requires asking the right sort of questions at the right stage of the process – right? Question asking is not just random querying, it is a deliberate activity focussed on collecting key data.

'Why are we doing this', 'what is the point' and 'what outcome do you want' are the right sort of questions. But they are often asked in despair by people at the end of their tether who are at their least likely to really be interested in the answer. There's a reason that these questions are howled at the moon in a towering rage – they are the questions that didn't get answered at the beginning and the asker knows it. Rather than ending up asking 'why' in despair, start by asking 'why' at the beginning of a project.

Its funny the lessons you learn along the way that feel like annoying wastes of time in the moment but that loom large later. Many, many years ago I undertook a masters degree. I remember very clearly having to take a class on how to write thesis topics suitable for approval. How annoying, I remember thinking. Can't I research whatever I think is appropriate? This was one of those key learning moments. What we were learning was how to ask sufficient questions of the topic to narrow it down to something that was manageable and able to keep us on track.

One of the projects in our office recently was the design of a screen for a data display. The data that was being displayed got more and more complicated as the project progressed – the desire to fill empty space is universal, pervasive and unhelpful! So we asked louder and louder 'why?' Our questions were about:

  • 'why share this data',  
  • 'does the viewer have enough context to understand the data',  
  • 'will they care', and  
  • 'what do you want them to do with the information'.  

The answers to those questions will change something - either the way we design because we will better understand the outcome required or the outcome will be clarified and the data being displayed will be changed.

At Hothouse Design we ask lots of questions. The answers add to our body of knowledge and enable us to make connections that even surprise us.