The Value of Asking ‘Why?’

Don’t just start… first start asking the right questions.

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When looking at a product have you ever heard yourself saying “why would anyone buy this?” or “why would people use this?” – I have. Unfortunately, there have been many times when I look at products and experience the “I don’t get it moment”. I mean, I understand the functions being demonstrated but I don’t understand what problem the product team is trying to solve. So we put our doubts aside and start working on the product anyway as you know at some point you can help simplify, redesign and make usability improvements. But something still niggles at you. What is missing?

Understanding value

The problem is we don’t spend enough time up front on projects discussing, assessing, defining and refining the value of what we make. We jump too quickly into design and build before applying rigor to what we make. Its easy to get lost in the product detail: a screen, code and forget what the product’s value is and who you are building it for. Everything we do should be to help move the product a little closer to success. Every question we ask, every piece of research we do, every design or sketch we make, every product walk through we have with stakeholders, should all help iterate towards understanding the product value – the copy, a widget, a function, a screen, the product framework, the product, the product line and where that product line lives in and around other products in the company and the marketplace should say something about its value.

we don’t spend enough time up front on projects discussing, assessing, defining and refining the value of what we make.

Stop and assess

We must dedicate more time up front, at the start of any project or before we jump into developing a new feature, feature set or redesign effort to better assess the value of stuff we make. What makes people want something in the first place, use it, continue to use it, buy more of the same, treasure it and keep it? The following list is by no means exhaustive, rather it attempts to get to the heart of why something is valuable:

We should…

  • do our homework and investigate how product decisions are made;
  • show how we can help the team make better product decisions;
  • provide research methods to test assumptions along the way;
  • ask: what does this product do? (what makes this product tick?);
  • ask: what do you love about the product? (why would you buy it?);
  • ask: what does the product team love about the product? (are they passionate about what they are working on?);
  • ask: what does sales love about the product? (are we helping them sell more?);
  • ask: could you sell the product? (if you were tasked to sell the product could you? Would you want to face customers with the product you have today?);
  • ask: what features would you sell? (any stand out features? any useless features? any features you would lead with when selling?);
  • ask: what are customers saying about the product? (does it really help them?);
  • ask: at what point would you want to throw the product away? (at what point does the product lose its value?);
  • ask: at what point would you want to upgrade? (what would you base your decision on?);
  • ask: how do you want the product to shine in the market place? (what would make it stand out?).

By asking questions about the product and its value you are by doing this in fact demonstrating value. Your role is to test assumptions and ensure that you provide clear value for users and determine what deeper research is needed. That is the sweet spot – providing ways for us to manage, facilitate, guide and educate product teams to take the necessary time up front and at every stage to deliver value as we drive towards product success. We don’t do this enough and the product team often does not have a shared set of design principles, philosophies or design tenets to hold onto as the product develops.

Dont Ask Permission

Ask yourself, is there general agreement on the team about the product’s value? Is this ever defined? Don’t ask for permission. You are all in the right position now to question the value of what you work on and to help improve stuff. Questioning, improving upon and nailing down the value of something helps set our strategy in the right direction, helps us focus on building the right stuff and helps avoid storms ahead. So get clarity around:

  1. Understanding the value of what we do
  2. Understanding the value of the stuff we work on
  3. Showing the value of what we do to others
  4. Appreciating the value of the people who end up using the products we make
  5. Appreciating and leveraging on the value of the product team skills available to help make better stuff
  6. Assessing and finding value up front before we start making stuff

So what stuff do you value in your life and why?

I look forward to an ongoing discussion with you and to learn from your successes and failures.

Daniel Szuc

Daniel Szuc is a Principal Consultant at a Apogee Usability Asia Ltd, based in Hong Kong, and previously worked on a usability team for Telstra Australia.

13 comments on this article

  1. Clark on

    These tasks seem to fit nicely with the title “Product Manager”. I must say I agree with what a bright person said at IA Summit 2009: “Don’t try to be the Product Manager. If you want that job, take that job.”

  2. Thanks Clark and you have picked up something inherent in the article – User Experience practitioners should be driving product strategy or positioning themselves closely with people who do.

    If this means we move into positions that are traditionally held by Product Managers and learn what they do, that’s what we should be doing.

    I expect and hope to see more of us taking ownership of these roles in years to come. We certainly have a nice range of methods to help drive strategy and its a sweet spot for us.

  3. @clark I think this position is changing (or needs to be changed)… it’s not the product manager, but the design team that should be asking the questions. It’s fundamental that the design team understands the ‘Why?’ behind the product. And this shouldn’t be passed over to them by a Powerpoint presentation, but they should feel and breath it.

    By doing this research we start to understand. And this is especially important when you are designing products that are not unique (what 99% of us do all the time). The products we design, digital or physical, aren’t revolutionary. So in order to stand out we must start diving into it and understand what makes it stand out in that particular field. These are often things you trully understand when you dove into the world. E.g.: finding out that people really don’t like the product, but they love the service behind it. When your product manager tells this you get a feeling, but when you hear this from the users themselves… you will value it and defend it until the end. It will be a driving force instead of just a rule.

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  6. @Jeroen – “they should feel and breath it” & “It will be a driving force instead of just a rule.” – absolutely! Suggest these are challenges for Product Teams.

    Has adequate time been allocated to:

    1. Articulate the Product and UX Vision?
    2. Communicate it the Vision and Values clearly?

    Are people able to:

    3. Hold onto the Vision, Design Tenets and Values along the way
    4. Revisit it and know when and why you need to go against the original values
    5. Scope and focus correctly so you are building the right thing and testing assumptions through research along the way

    A reasonable amount of dependency on “corporate culture” –

    Good discussion.


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