This post is heavily inspired by reading Nir Eyal's book, Hooked. It's a great read in general and I got a lot out of it but one thing in particular stood out. I've heard about the Five Whys several times in the past but have never had success. After another reminder, I was determined to try again.

The Five Whys are a simple technique developed by Sakichi Toyoda and used in Toyota's product development phase. It's designed to counteract the powerful Henry Ford quote, "If I asked people what they wanted, they would say faster horses."

Why do you want faster horses?

So we can travel faster and more efficiently.

Why do you want to travel faster and more efficiently?

To be able to take more trips!

Why do you want to take more trips?

I can't fit everything I need in one trip, my horse can only carry so much. It takes so much time to ride back and forth, most of my life is spent in the stirrups!

Henry Ford was right in spirit, but wrong in method. If he asked the right questions about what a customer wants he would have gotten the right answer. Fortunately he was intuitive and innovative enough to skip showing his work. I'm not that lucky. Since then I've started on my own question to run Five Why tests based on the products I'm building, and the results at the start were awful because this is hard. Fortunately my first test subject was my wife, and I could placate her with chocolate and wine.

What can, and did, go wrong

By the time I got to the second Why, I realized the Why wasn't right anymore. I wanted a deeper reason as to what motivated my user (and by user I mean wife, sorry, honey!). Instead I got a very shallow answer that wasn't really helpful. I felt silly and just repeated the same question. "But why?" This went on until she was clearly exasperated with me and I stopped, took a moment and explained where I saw a disconnect. This required me also informing her that I was wrong, she was right.

When probing for deep meaning, you can't allow shallow answers. The question here shifts away from being abstract to more direct, more guided. I got in trouble when I said, "Why do you want to write?" That was too vague, and when facing vagueness people experience anxiety and discomfort.

10 Tips for Successful Five Whys

  1. Write everything down!
    I'm listing this number one, because I didn't do it the first time and it was a huge waste. Both the questions and the answers need to be written down. If you just write down answers, you won't see later if the response was guided or in what context it was framed. For me, asking the Why 5 times helped clarify my intentions, too.
  2. Be free of interruptions.
    Distractions can invalidate this entire process. Respect everybody's time and make sure you are dedicating the 2-15 minutes that this requires.
  3. Remember the purpose: Discovering motivation.
    Each question is about the intention behind the action, which ultimately will reveal the deeper motivation that can make or break a product. At each question, remind yourself this is the purpose and it's about unearthing something that may be hard to find. Some people get uneasy about this, don't badger them (like I may have done).
  4. Ask the most specific Why without guiding the response.
    There is a very fine line behind discovering underlying motivations and implanting your own bias. I probably guide this process more than I should, but in fairness to me it's hard to not be biased. This is my product! Take the time to write the question down before you ask it, look at it, maybe cross it out and start over. This is another reason why step 1 is so important.
  5. Make sure the person is familiar with the subject.
    If it's a product being discussed, make sure they use it or a similar product. If it's an action, such as sending email, then ensure they're comfortable with performing the action first. Don't surprise people, unless it's for their birthday and they like surprises. Don't assume every user wants to use your product, either.
  6. Keep going until you say "Eureka!"
    The Five Whys is a guideline. You may hit gold on the third. In #3 it's about discovering motivation and maybe that takes time. It still won't take that much time, but don't abruptly stop once you ask Why for the fifth time. Maybe you need 6 or 7. Let that happen.
  7. Be open to a change.
    At each Why you may end up finding more clarity about what your motivation is, too. There may be a moment where you feel your idea of the product is wrong. There is a benefit to the questions here, in that it can provide clarity and insight. If you're building a product for the users, this is a chance to let your mind open a little more.
  8. Ask them to share when it's over.
    There is a moment of reflection and contemplation when the deeper motivation has been stated. Most users won't really acknowledge what is the driving force behind their actions. When they finally do, it can be an interesting experience and some genuinely amazing ideas and thoughts can flourish. Let the user talk. Don't interrupt. Oh, that's Item 9.
  9. Don't Interrupt.
    Aside from just being rude, interrupting changes the mentality of the other person while they're talking. Furthermore, it can create serious judgement errors. A 2007 study showed nurses list interrupting as one of the top reasons for prescription errors. In matters that could mean life or death, interrupting can create huge mistakes. In something a user is already feeling uncomfortable, interrupting could just mean a complete shutdown. 
  10. Understand the next step.
    The next step needs to be planned. What are you going to do with this information once you have it? It isn't enough to just write it down. You need to know how, and when, it will make its way into the product. Not all feedback can, or should, inform product decisions. The good feedback must. Get it in the backlog. Cut tickets. Write better user stories. Know what comes next and do it as soon as you can. Maybe even tell the user what you'll do with the data, too.

The Five Whys are just another tool, and a tool only matters based on how you use it. Used incorrectly, it can damage and injure. Use the tool properly and beautiful things will be built.

For the pursuit of questions,

– Jay


Image courtesy flickr user Duncan Hill.