Paddy Long    |     +44 (0)7835684851
Customer experience design
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How to ask questions

We’ve all hear people say, “Don’t ask users what they want because they don’t really know.” However, it’s not people’s answers to your questions that give you great insights, it’s the stories they tell you. An emotional account of a real experience in context, stories are more memorable and resonate further than any other kind of data.

So why then, is mastery of the humble question so important?

Questions can be used for many purposes: to challenge assumptions, fill holes in our knowledge: work out what questions we should be asking ourselves: explore a wider subject or simply to get a dialogue going. Each of these approaches plays a role in gathering the valuable stories that help designers figure out what people really find important.

Although everyone is unique and responds differently in a conversation, I find the following techniques help me gather the best kinds of story.

Get the other person talking
People have the stories you want to hear tucked away, but they don’t always remember them at first, can actually be embarrassed to tell you or might not think them relevant. Similarly, you might not know which stories will be relevant until you hear them. So, it works well, simply to get the other person talking first and feeling relaxed. Questions are your vehicle to enable this and can even be disguised not to be questions so they don’t seem too probing. “Tell me about yourself’, is an excellent way to learn all sorts of useful information without having to ask specifics and helps you build context for the character you’re learning about. ‘Tell me more about that’, is another great way of disguising the question, “Why?” without seeming intrusive. Of course, the objective is to get the speaker comfortable but by building rapport there is a bonus: You get the chance to feel comfortable too!

Don’t underestimate how important this is. If the person you’re talking to doesn’t feel confident to talk away in your company, they’re unlikely to tell you the stories that matter. For example, if unrelaxed, an elderly French man wouldn’t have told us he sneaked sports drinks from his son in law’s bag after playing tennis, and we might not have thought to design sports drinks for an older generation. If a paying guest for a house sharing scheme hadn’t told us they got a buzz out of letting themselves in and out the front door inconspicuously, we wouldn’t have designed a hospitality experience to fuel their independence. If a wealthy home owner hadn’t felt comfortable to admit he could hear the neighbours going to the toilet after significant renovation, we wouldn’t have focussed so much on a range of soundproof wall products. One man in Halifax admitted the reason he chose one bank over another was because they put the account number on his actual debit card.

You know when you hear a story that’s going to deepen your insight, because it’s the kind of stuff you can’t make up!

Ask stupid questions
It takes the person answering the questions a little confidence to give their most honest answers. In a similar vein, it can also take a little confidence to ask the questions you really want to ask.  If you’re with colleagues or a client, there can be apprehension not just about asking a question, but of putting your intelligence on display with the possibility of being judged. But, when you’re trying to think about what will sound intelligent, you stop thinking about what you actually want to learn.

The thing is, to the untrained ear, the best questions do sound stupid and that’s because they challenge the things that most people take for granted. Opportunities to innovate make themselves known when we take the courage to analyse the most obvious things from a new perspective. And, because it’s actually useful for us to go about our daily lives taking things for granted most of the time, it can take real intelligence to work out what those dumb sounding questions should be.

Here are a few examples of the kind of questions, I’m talking about: Why do you have a dog? Why do you keep your money in the bank? How do you book a flight? What do you take photographs for?

Don’t break the silence
A good question may take a while for the person to digest and is therefore often followed by a slightly awkward silence. This is the moment when people realise they hadn’t actually thought about it before. This silence is powerful, delicate and can be destroyed all too easily. The questioner can get nervous and fill in the gap by trying to answer their own question with their own assumptions, “Oh... but I’m sure you probably do this…...or think that…” or worse, they might move on to a different topic altogether. In some situations colleagues might also be guilty of breaking the silence, embarrassed that such a question has been asked. If you do get a silence, recognise it quickly and give it the breathing space it deserves. In this way you’ll hear new perspectives you never imagined. In many situations the silence gives the respondent time to build the confidence they need to tell you something they’re embarrassed about, like keeping their bank savings under the mattress or using the garage vice to open jam jars.

Don’t accept an answer
Remember, you’re not asking questions to give you a list of answers. Answers can feel like doors closing just as you catch a glimpse of the unknown and exciting world beyond. Really, the first response you get is just the start and from here you have a whole topic to explore that will take you deeper into the mindset of the person you’re chatting to. Try to be exploratory with the questions you ask and in return the person you’re speaking to can explore their own memories as they put together each response. In this way it should feel more like following a train of thought than asking discrete questions.

A key skill to master, is recognising the throw-away comment. People might often say things like, “But of course I never go to the supermarket in the evening”, or “we only drink instant coffee when we’re camping.” As an interviewer, this is your moment to ask why and hear the underlying stories. When investigating breakfast habits, we met a woman who said she didn’t bother with breakfast. Asking her why, it turned out that she boils an egg every evening so she can eat it on the bus ride to work or later if she gets hungry. This story reflects a new kind of behaviour which could inspire all sorts of new breakfast products.

Follow Your Tracks
While in conversation, you’ll explore a range of topics, many of which will lead you off course. Going off course is the whole idea. If you didn’t go into uncharted territory, you wouldn’t learn anything new and the conversation wouldn’t be worth having. When you’ve developed a wealth of knowledge about the person and have some juicy stories up your sleeve that will resonate with your team, it’s time to backtrack a little. Cross reference their stories with your most pertinent questions. How does this person challenge the assumptions you were making at the start? For example, does this person care about being genuinely healthy or are they more interested in looking good? Or, why might the proud owners of a coffee machine sing its praises when they don’t like coffee? At this stage you can afford to be a little more specific with your questions and to test out your thinking while you have the chance.

Keep your ears pricked
At some stage you’ll bring your conversation to an end. It’s time to say bye. I always give the person the opportunity to ask me some questions too. Although people usually enjoy telling their own stories, a one way conversation can feel odd. Some people want to know about the project and sometimes they’re curious about your personal life too. These can be bonding moments and are important. While the person you’ve been chatting to feels relaxed that things have come to an end, their mind continues to process the personal subjects you’ve been discussing and as a result you’ll hear some gems when you least expect. They might take you to see a kitchen gadget they were talking about or mention the fact they love to cook on holiday so always take garlic salt with them. There are even occasions when people will lean out of their front door to tell you one last thing they forgot to mention. It doesn’t get better than that.

Later when you find a comfortable place to stop and gather your thoughts, take a few minutes to jot down the most fascinating stories, so they’re ready to share with your team.      |      Telephone:   +971 (0)552 665 794