After “What are you trying to achieve?“, my second-favourite and most used question, is “Why?”

Anyone who has ever engaged the inquisitive mind of a four-year old has had the experience of answering the dreaded follow-up question of ‘but why?’. While this line of questioning has lead to many frustrated adults, this line of thinking has inspired the problem-solving approach employed by some of the top companies and leaders in the world.

In accident analysis in the aviation-, railway- and marine industry, the “Why-because analysis” is applied as a method to discover causal relations between factors and accidents. The Five W’s (Who, What, Where, When, & What) are used in journalism, research, and police investigations for information-gathering & problem-solving. For accident analysis, quality control, business analysis, & management risk, an RCA (Root cause analysis) approach is followed, through which the identification and removal of a root cause can prevent the event from happening in the future. The 5 Whys, as found in Kaizen, lean manufacturing and 6 Sigma, is an interrogative technique used to explore the cause-and-effect relationship underlying a particular problem.

It isn’t only companies that have recognised the importance of asking “Why”. Simon Sinek has observed that great leaders of the world inspire action, because they start by asking “Why”, and not “How” or “What”. He has also noted that this is because people don’t buy from a company because of the product it sells, but what the company’s vision is. People relate to the Why, because our decisions are emotional driven.

Asking “Why” can be one of the most powerful techniques a UX designer can use in optimising user experience. Getting answers to your “Why” questions is actually quite easy, but identifying the root cause for users’ behaviour is the hard part. Irrespective of whether you practice the 5 Whys or Five Ws as part of your UX research, there are a few things you should take in account when analysing the responses to your “Why”.

  1. Lack of Introspection
    The ability to understand one’s own behaviour, via introspection, may vary markedly from one user to the next.
  2. Recognising the Root Cause
    Neither the 5 Whys or Five W’s approach are helpful if the UX designer applies them blindly without being able to recognise when they have uncovered the “root” cause. For example, what if the root cause was given to you after the second “Why”?
  3. The Researcher’s Experience
    The efficacy of both probing techniques may be limited by the experience of the UX Researcher. Experience will teach you which line of questioning has given you better or worse results in the past. It isn’t something that can be easily taught, because it depends on the user’s answer, the product, and context.

The “5 Why’s” technique has a set of guidelines on how to manage the “interrogation” or probing of the user’s behaviour. Four of these guidelines stand out for me as a UX designer.

  1. “Never blame the user as the root cause
    This one most of UX’ers will already know. If the user struggles to use your app or if they use it “incorrectly”, it isn’t their fault. In this case, your UI is not communicating properly.
  2. “Distinguish causes from symptoms”
    I have always classified user’s answers into two categories: “Excuses” or “Reasons”, and “Motivators”. “Excuses” are answers like “Because I liked it”, “It was close by”, “My father used to do it”, etc. They sound like justifications for a behaviour and don’t appear to be tied to a “motivator”. A “motivator” is something that drives behaviour. It has strong meaning tied to it. It also creates consistency in human behaviour. “Motivators” may include user responses like “Because I felt safe”, “I like to express myself”, “It makes me feel like I have accomplished something”, etc. In relation to the 5 Whys, “excuses” are synonymous with symptoms and “motivators” with causes.
  3. “Base statements on facts & knowledge”
    Only repeat back what the user said, don’t add in your own assumptions/words, which is easier said than done; as we do it quite subtly.
  4. “Foster an atmosphere of trust & sincerity”
    This is very important and something that some UX designers, in their pursuit of achieving their research objectives, can easily overlook. . It doesn’t matter if you know the tools of the trade, if users don’t trust you, you won’t be getting any good qualitative data from them. A UX designer who can instill trust will get a lot more useful information from the user, even in the absence of a particular probing technique, than a UX designer who blindly applies a given technique without trying to foster a sense of trust and sincerity with the user. In such an event, the UX designer is likely to only get feedback from the user that the user thinks the designer wants to hear or the user wants the designer to hear.

As UX designers we will ask our users (and ourselves) many questions, some of them will be “But why?” or “How” or “When?” to gain qualitative understanding in our UX. Whichever technique or method you choose to use to achieve these improvements, the point is not to get lost in the method, but to focus on the reason why you are undertaking this particular interrogation. You want to understand the user’s behaviour by looking at his/her motivations and the “Why” allows you to explore this. Only once you understand what the user is trying to achieve can you evaluate the effectiveness of your solution, which is the measure of success in UX.