Seeing someone do something is ok. Knowing why is invaluable.


This super simple question underpins everything that I do as a product designer because it clarifies what matters. It gives an extra gear to your research because it arms you with a tool. A tool that makes you an active participant in a discussion. And in the messy world of qualitative research, being an active participant, guiding the conversation to what you want to know; asking why is one of the best ways to get to the nub of anything.

I use why all the time, people talk about it all the time, but I’ve never taken the time to explore it.

My Short (and potentially poor) History of Why?

I first read about the ‘5 Whys’ in Lean Startup, as an interrogative technique for finding the root cause of a problem. It was drawn from the work from the Toyota production system to address production issues. But for research, ‘5 whys’ seemed such a simple technique to getting to the heart of a problem, as it was seemed such an effective and simple approach to unpicking issues with production.

However, ‘Why’ is not a method in itself, but just one of many techniques inside other methods. There are many methods to understand users better and build empathy. I’ve used games to explore conversations, mapping to explain journeys. In all cases though, asking why helps you go deeper. However most of all, it does not replace asking decent questions to start with!

Why Why Matters

Asking why helps you deeply understand user needs and behaviour. Posing it, usually repeatedly, forces users to explain things. Things they may know, but only superficially. Things they know really well and can explain in a nuanced way that only an experts can. Things they think they know but actually don’t.

Why lets you go deep. The probing offered by asking why, forces users to explore, and expose, their deeply held (and sometimes hidden) motivations. They sometimes draw comparisons, creating rich metaphors for actions, as they try to explain themselves. They sometimes go over things, repeatedly, until they get fed up and tell you a truth.

Why helps you get good data. Asking why, forces research participants to explain issues in their own terms. Initially, when asking why, many user may respond with a superficial comment that may be reflective of a default response possibly, an organisational or societal response they have learned to parrot. The second time you ask, that default response is removed, and they are forced to draw on their own experience to explain.

Why helps design

I find research is pointless if I can’t get ‘good’ data. By good, I mean, actionable. Data that through analysis and synthesis helps me deeply understand users needs. Why? So that I can then design the next thing. Why? Because my job involves drawing from a reservoir of empathy built over time, and then making novel connections (abductive thinking), to create or improve things in new ways.

In short, the rich data that comes from asking why helps me design the right thing right. For without this rich level of data you’re more or less firing buckshot at the stars. You vaguely know where you’re aiming, it might make a loud bang but the target isn’t specific and in that expanse, you can’t tell if you’ve hit anything or not.

Compare these two responses and ask yourself, which one would lets you understand the problem space better to design the next thing? Why?

As the only physician in Las Salinas, you seem to travel a lot by horseback?

“I sure do wish my horse was faster so I could get to Sam Hamilton’s farm and return the same day. That why I wouldn’t have to stay overnight”


“Sam Hamilton’s farm is over 100 miles from here. I need to take bag, stable the horse when I arrive, stay the night, and only to return in the morning. I lose a days work by doing that trip…and it’s not the only one I do”


In short, one is simple a statement of want. Going deeper then begins to tease out an informative description of a behaviour, which you can then address in your work. Perhaps design solutions can address issues such as stabling, ways to improve ways equipment are carried. Perhaps have each homestead can have a standard medical equipment so physicians can carry less? Or crazily…new concepts around different types of vehicles?

All this comes about because we’re not stopping as at the superficial actions(travel fast), but going deeper and describing the needs as to why that action occurs. It is those needs we’re looking to understand and address. Without asking why, those base units of rich data, drawn from a deep understanding of user needs, we’d just end up designing a faster horse.


These three letters, one simple word. They help move research away from opinion to behaviours. Why cuts through preferences and rankings and explains, in human terms, which things matter and why. When you know that, then you’ve got something that you can work with.

Fmr: Design Manager for clinical care @ Babylon. Fmr Lead Design/research in Urgent & Emergency Care at RCA MRES in Healthcare & Design.