When starting any design project, you need to ask a lot of questions. The perceived problem and actual problem may not be the same. So how can you get better at asking the right questions?
I decided to brush up on my questioning skills by reading A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger. Berger illustrates how questioning is an inherent skill we’re quite adept at during childhood. He notes that children haven’t developed a “mental model” of the world, so they question everything. But as we go through standardized education, we begin to suppress our curiosity.
As adults, it’s frowned upon to ask too many questions in the workplace. On the flip side, we’re often embarrassed when we don’t have immediate answers. But Berger claims the ability to admit you don’t have all the answers, but can ask better questions, is a superior skillset.
By analyzing innovative figures, Berger identified three common types of questions that lead to breakthroughs.
Why does something have to be the way it is? Has everybody else missed something obvious? Are we basing our understanding on assumptions? Asking ‘why’ questions is about challenging assumptions and the status quo. A famous example of a ‘why’ question is when Edwin Land’s son asked, “Why do we have to wait to see our pictures?” Land answered that question by creating the Polaroid instant camera.
This is where you mash up ideas, go against common logic, or add/remove factors that make the challenge more interesting. Sky’s the limit here as each wild idea often yields a workable element. This thought process is sometimes referred to as “divergent thinking.” Thank the candy gods that one day H.B. Reese, inventor of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups asked, “What if you put peanut butter and chocolate together?”
This is where the rubber meets the road. Propose solutions, create testable hypotheses, perform a bunch of tests to gain insight. This is typically the “prototyping” stage where you have to see what elements of your ideas are compatible with reality. A near legendary example of the rapid prototyping is the story of the Google Glass team creating a working though ugly prototype of Glass in just 45 minutes.
Questioning in Business Culture
While most modern enterprise companies use buzzwords like “out of the box thinking”, they seem to rather question averse. Instead, they’ve created a culture which rewards employees on measures of efficiency, while punishing those who ask too many questions.
Enterprise software design treats the Lean method more as a process than a mindset. It’s used to move a project from concept to creation, but not to iterate and discover. In a true spirit of Lean, a team needs to be ready to try many approaches and fail. A strong culture of questioning is essential to achieving innovative results.
UX and product designers must adopt a questioning mindset. Skilled questioning leads to better outcomes and paradigm changes within organizations. You may stir the pot a little bit, but you may also help shape a new direction and encourage others to move forward.