The art of asking “why” in user research: 3 lessons from a toddler

June 23, 2020
Using "why" effectively is key to collecting data; using "why" creatively can ensure the quality of the data collected.

Anyone who has spent time with an inquisitive toddler knows how persistently they ask “Why?” about anything and everything. As researchers, we have important lessons to learn from their curiosity:

1. Toddlers’ questioning feels repetitive and bombarding; asking “why” requires tact.

Think back to the last time you were around a curious 4-year old – their incessant “Why?…But why?” can become agitating to even the calmest of adults. Similarly, asking “why” again and again during research sessions can seem pushy and lead to frustration in participants if not done tactfully. Researchers must take a similarly persistent, though less grating, approach when following up on participants’ responses. Rephrasing “why” helps us get to the root of answers without creating a stressful research environment.

In a recent study, we focused on feelings to understand why certain features were valued in automobiles. We rephrased “Why” and “Why is that important to you” into “How do you feel when you think about having a car with X feature” and “What about X feature makes you feel that way?” That’s not to say we never asked questions with the word “why” in them, but we were careful to pepper explicit “why” questions in with more creatively phrased probes.

2. Toddlers will ask “why” until they’ve uncovered the root of an answer.

The first answer is never the whole truth. Telling a 4-year old that cookies can’t be dinner because they’re unhealthy will lead to a string of “whys” that ultimately conclude with a deeper answer. User research requires an equal level of dissatisfaction with surface-level answers. Understanding the underlying values or assumptions held by users helps us establish the root cause of their actions and interpretations.

Let’s imagine an app that allows patients to communicate remotely with practitioners. The app has three tabs  – ‘Inbox’, ‘New Message’, and ‘Reminders’. Say that users expect to see notifications about reminders in the ‘Reminders’ tab, but they appear in the ‘Inbox’ tab. Asking “why” once might lead to an answer along the lines of “That’s where I set the reminder, so that’s where it should show up.” By continuing to ask “why” questions, we might find out that users would never think to look for notifications about reminders in ‘Inbox’ because, to them, ‘Inbox’ is associated with receiving emails, and reminders are not emails.

3. Toddlers haven’t quite figured out when to stop asking; know when to stop.

Asking “why” is an art. Sometimes, the answer to “why” is, “I don’t know,” and asking “why” in response to “I don’t know” will get you nowhere, fast. Most toddlers have not figured that part out. When conducting user research we have to be careful to know when asking “why” will be productive and when it will lead us off course or to a dead-end.

It can be tempting to ask “why” at every turn, but knowing when a “why” will lead to superfluous information is vital to the flow of a research session. The moderator needs to make sure all objectives are being met, which may mean not digging into responses that are out of the scope of the project. Many times, a split-second judgement call is necessary – will asking “why” meaningfully contribute to the knowledge gained from this research or will it be extraneous and not useful in addressing the study objectives.

This judgement is sometimes based on the personality of the participant. Asking “why” questions of a participant who has difficulty with introspection often leads to frustration or discomfort. Then, it becomes imperative to break questions down further. If a participant says that something looks confusing at first glance, but cannot adequately articulate why it looks confusing, the researcher might need to dig into what features stand out to the participant, how what they expected to see compares to what they are actually seeing, and if they have seen anything similar in the past.

Taking lessons from children’s perpetual curiosity helps us uncover more insightful, detailed feedback from participants across industries. At Bold Insight, we work to foster a love of learning and curiosity in our researchers for just this reason: knowing how and when to ask “why” is, arguably, one of the most important aspects of successfully moderating a research session to uncover valuable data.


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