The importance of asking awkward questions
3 minutes read
As a parent of 2 young children, I get asked a lot of questions. My household will all too often resemble a rather mundane and meandering Q&A session. ‘What’s for dinner?’ is a favourite, as is ‘What are we doing today?’, along with ‘Are we nearly there yet’ and of course the combative ‘Why not?’ (because I said so).
Children are naturally inquisitive, and being naturally inquisitive they will ask a lot of questions, including a lot of awkward questions. Awkward questions like:
- What happens when you die?
- Where do babies come from?
- Why are you crying?
- If there are millions of children in the world, how does Santa deliver presents in just one night? (Christmas magic of course).
As children progress from inquisitive toddlers, to know-it all teenagers they tend to stop asking so many awkward questions. We realise that asking awkward questions can be, well awkward, so rather than asking we keep our lips sealed and make assumptions instead. This is a shame because not only can our assumptions all too often be wrong, asking awkward questions is important. It’s important for mental health conversations, it’s important for healthy relationships, and it’s certainly important for UX and product design. Let me tell you what can happen when awkward questions don’t get asked.
When awkward questions don’t get asked
I used to work for a digital agency (I won’t mention which one for reasons that will soon become obvious). The agency had a few key clients that provided most of the work and therefore most of the money coming in. The agency was understandably paranoid about keeping these clients happy. They therefore took the rather misguided decision to insist that all correspondence and contact with these clients had to be through the account manager. Any emails must be sent via the account manager, who like a prison guard vetting the letters being sent by prisoners to their loved ones would scrutinise and adjust them accordingly. Meetings would be exclusively chaired by the account manager, with the team under strict instructions not to ask the client any potentially awkward questions.
As you’d expect this led to one or two dysfunctions. Like a dystopian version of the telephone game (bizarrely called Chinese whispers in the UK) as the account manager relayed messages back and forth, they would all too often get lost in translation. More importantly it meant that awkward questions were never asked of the client. Questions like:
- Why have you asked for this work?
- What risks do you foresee?
- Why has this solution been proposed?
- How fixed are these timescales?
- You do know this is a terrible idea, don’t you? (perhaps phrased a little differently)
A design brief would come in (via the account manager), the team would make a thousand and one assumptions and the work would be carried out, no questions asked. Unsurprisingly 9 times out of 10 even if the client was happy with the work, it didn’t have the desired impact. By not being able to ask awkward questions, the team wasn’t able to challenge the brief. The team was doing what the client wanted, not necessarily what they needed (see Why the user is not always right for more about this).
Asking awkward questions
I’ve written before about the importance of understanding the problem before designing a solution (see Why every design should start with the problem). It’s not only important to ask awkward questions early on to better understand a problem or brief, but to continue doing so throughout the design process.
Uxers should be asking stakeholders awkward questions. They should be asking colleagues awkward questions, other designers awkward questions and even users awkward questions. Asking awkward questions isn’t to be purposely difficult (although watch out for that one), but to probe, dig, query and ultimately to better understand. Awkward questions might include:
- Why are we doing this?
- What evidence do we have to back that up?
- If we do this, what are we not able to do?
- What value will this provide to users?
- Is there a better approach?
- Is that really a technical constraint?
- Why are you so committed to that solution?
- Should we be releasing this to our users?
Like an inquisitive toddler, it’s important that UXers are comfortable asking awkward questions. Of course, it’s also important that UXers are equally comfortable answering awkward questions. Embrace the awkwardness, because if you’re not asking (and answering) lots of awkward question you’re probably not doing your job properly, and that really is awkward!
- Why every design should start with the problem (UX for the Masses)
- Why the user is not always right (UX for the Masses)