Recently I had a discussion with someone in my company.

I was talking about the our team and how things we going, and the challenge of all of these new things we needed to work on.

I said we needed to structure things better because there were so many unanswered questions we needed to address before we began a design.

‘We spend more then half the time asking people questions and getting answers’

He looked at me and said:

‘Ya know, your group has kinda a reputation of asking a lot of questions. This could turn some people off…’

I was taken back at first. Asking question was a critical element in my definition of doing a good job. How could anyone question this and get turned off ?  After giving this a good bit of thought I realized that asking questions can go two ways.

Too hard – and you create conflict ; too soft – and you dont get the details you need.

Balance is the key.

I asked myself the question: ‘Why does asking questions create so much resistance’?

I had realised long ago that, even the best intended questions of are not always interpreted this way. This often leads to frustration and conflict (I have the bruised ego to prove it).

Questions challenge authority and disrupt established structures, processes, and systems, forcing people to have to at least think about doing something differently.

These challenges are often viewed as criticisms.

In business, as well as our personal lives, results are what counts (outwardly anyway). Questions are often viewed as delays in the way of progress and stop the group from ‘moving forward’. The risk here is without such questions, the group often acts out of habit  – moving forward with an idea that was used before. As things become more complex old solutions become less and less effective when we face new challenges. New thinking is required more frequently.

Our present Western culture generally doesnt reward not knowing. As experts we are expected to deliver answers not more questions.

According to Sir Ken Robinson:

In our culture, not to know is to be at fault, socially.

If you ask a question and that person doesnt know the answer they (and others as well) can view themselves as failures.

Questioning often has an inverse relation to expertise – such that within their own subject areas, experts are apt to be poor questioners.

As a side note: This is one of the reasons I encourage all of my adepts to adopt the ‘Mind of the beginner’.

So how can we get better at this ?

The challenge is that we have never been taught this in Western education. Instead, students are encouraged (and tested) to know ‘the answer’ to a question. Rarely is the process reversed allowing people to explore and ask questions.

Since the my initial conversation our team has started using two main methods to ask better questions and facilitate a conversation that has proven to yield some good answers.

Asking better questions:

When a new challenge comes into the team, there are immediately quite a few questions that pop up in the members heads. This usually creates confusion and frustration.

Instead of immediately jumping into answers to these questions I think it is important that we take a step back and insure we ask the ‘best’ questions we can first.

To do this we have used an adaption of the ‘Question-Storming’ technique developed by the Right Question institute for some time. The RQI is a non-profit organisation who’s goal it is to educate people (emphasis on students) on how to ask more effective questions in their lives.

Question storming

Question storming is a variation of brainstorming where, instead of brainstorming ideas (solutions) to a problem, participants generate questions instead. Questions are usually viewed as less fixed and peer pressure is typically reduced.

Creating Questions

In a given session we will spend about 5 minutes (timed) to generate individual questions on sicky-notes in silence. At that point, each member posts them on a wall and explains the question to the rest of the team. Usually there are a few statements and these are converted to questions. After all the questions are posted there is a discussion where we try to refine and consolidate. The goal here is to get to the best questions that will get us the information that will allow us to develop a good design

Since we are trying to develop the best questions we can around this issue, we try to limit the number of closed – ended  questions – those that can be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Instead we try to develop more  open-ended questions – those that demand more of an explanation.

Priortising

At this point we usually have a quite a few questions. So to not overwhelm people we generally divide this question into groups – immediate, those that we feel are the most important and secondary, those that can be explored later or that we expect to get an answer later in the process.

Discussion

Once the questions have been identified then we can begin to take action around. This usually always involved a structured meeting the stakeholders to begin a discussion

Having a question conversation

Experience Canvas 

I have found the asking of questions (or more importantly getting to the information of the answers) is much more effective in the context of a normal conversation. This avoids the feeling of a ‘inquisition’ which tends to put people on the defence and makes the exchange more natural.

For the last year I have been using a modified version of the Experience Map from Atlasssian (huge thanks), which uses some of the themes of Lean UX together with the Business Model Canvas to facilitate these conversations. I found this to be a good framework to have a conversation and often results in holes in our knowledge that needs to be filled before we can continue.

Experience Canvas 2

The canvas:

Problem – What triggered the hypothesis? How was this identified ? From PM’s ? from Customers ? Are we solving the right problem ? Do we need to investigate further ?

Personas – Who will use this solution ? Will this differ from our present user personas for existing products ?

Stakeholders – Who is genuinely affected by this solution and should have a say. Who needs to be informed ?

Team – Who can deliver this solution? Will this fall into one of the existing Product teams ? Does a new  cross team group need to be created ?

Idea – What are the early thoughts and options to solve the problem? Careful not to jump to quick conclusions.

Value – What is the user benefit and business benefit for your solution?

Validation – What does the smallest, easiest, fastest-way to validate your idea. This can be a sketch, prototype or basic version of the product. Who can be validate this ? t

End-to-end demo – Tell a story to bring this to life, using anything from role play, sketches, story board. Very often we will use Story Mapping to explore and visualise this.

Test results – How will you judge the experience you’re setting out to provide? Qualitative or Quantitate testing ? how ?

Here is a download of the my Experience Map – have fun.

I am pleased how these tools have allowed the team to ask better and more effective questions. I have found that this can be used in a number of other areas as well. These question, together with the Experience Canvas, I hope will lead to a better start to your designs.

Let me know how it goes.