Why ask why?

Futures Rambling # 70

By Laurie Aznavoorian

A guy goes to his doctor and says “Doc, I’m quite unhappy with the service I have gotten from you.” 

Alarmed and somewhat taken aback, the doctor replies, “good gosh whatever for?”

The man replies “I came to you, told you I needed antibiotics, you give me these pills, I took them and I haven’t gotten any better!”

Scratching his head the doctor ponders for a moment or two, then a look of understanding envelopes his face. “Sir, you clearly have a virus; antibiotics won’t do anything for that. In fact you’ll just pass them into our water system through your urine, adding to the ever increasing and alarming drug resistant bacteria we’re currently battling.”

“Then why may I ask, did you give them to me?” asked the man.

“Well, I would have advised differently if I’d known you wanted to get well, but you said you wanted antibiotics, so that is what I gave you. “

Consider the difference between that scenario and this one: a client walks into a design practice, the designer is hopefully enlightened enough to avoid beginning his briefing session with a foolish question like, tell me what you want and instead asks what do you need to succeed? 

The client replies “We want to collaborate! It is absolutely critical to our future success” the designer nods, writes down this directive and proceeds to design the space.

In these rather simplistic scenarios, both doctor and designer should be fired. Why? Because they didn’t ask why, and they should have! Assuming a user knows how to define their problem is a mistake many professionals make, but a malady particularly endemic with designers. The oversight presents itself in professional practice daily, and I can attest after spending a day as a guest critic at one of our local university’s design schools, is rampant in academia as well.  

At the university I was exposed to many great projects featuring beautiful graphics and 3D renderings, but far too many were built on shallow or non-existent foundations. Many of the students hadn’t articulated what they were really hoping to achieve with their work. As a result they defined one problem and solved another. Being students they can be spared; unfortunately, they’re not the only ones who do this, many professional designs lack clarity, or strength they could have had, if someone had spent more time at the onset of the project articulating the problem.

Einstein once said if he had one hour to save the world he would spend fifty-five minutes defining the problem and only five minutes finding the solution. Design solutions often fall short, not because we have done a bad design, but because we were too lazy, too stupid or too egotistically complacent to ask the right questions that will lead to a proper outline of the opportunities. And when we do ask questions, we often shy away from challenging the bone head answers we sometimes get.

Somewhere in the altruistic journey we have taken as designers to be less full of ourselves, more ‘client focused’ and ‘highly responsive’; we’ve completely lost our guts and integrity. The pendulum has swung and we’re now at a point where the process of proper exploration and briefing is mistaken as being closed minded or obstinate.  Today when a designer asks the critical question, why, they are labelled as being confronting and not very good with clients. We operate under the false belief that a good designer does what their client wants without questioning.

Unfortunately, most clients aren’t sufficiently rigorous in defining the problems they’re attempting to solve nor are they very good at articulating why those issues are important to solve in the first place. Sometimes the issues aren’t ‘the issue’ but only a manifestation or mask for the real problems they should be seeking solutions for. Without rigor we miss opportunities, waste resources, and pursue initiatives that don’t work in our best interest. We design the wrong thing right.

There is a sizeable gap we fall into that Sudhakar Lahade from Steelcase calls the ‘knowing gap’. This is the void that exists between thinking and acting and is the place where important drivers such as: knowing the real problem, knowing whether it is worth solving, knowing how you might solve it and knowing you’ve uncovered latent needs, behaviours, and desires your clients didn’t even know they had, falls.  

I can hear the rebuttals already, “but the client won’t let us engage”, “but the project manager is controlling our interaction”, “but that’s what they said they wanted.” All of these obstacles are real, as are sentiments such as the one I heard last weekend from a good friend who posed the question “shouldn’t the user get to define what they want, isn’t the user’s desire paramount?” NO I shouted.  Of course the answer was overly blunt to prove my point that a user shouldn’t get what they want if it’s unsafe, stupid, butt ugly or hasn’t been considered.

What designer would allow this to happen? Well we all do, of course in our pluckier moments we mutter under our breath, “If they just wanted us to not think, to simply draw up their half baked idea, why did they hire us in the first place?” But more often now days, we’re happy to endure insults to our craft and talent because we are so happy to have work. It is yet another horrifying manifestation of these troubling economic times. We smile and never let the user know their clothes are invisible.

I couldn’t help but channel IDEO’s process for design thinking at the university the other day. IDEO describes this as a system of overlapping spaces rather than a sequence of orderly steps, they take pains to reinforce design is not simply about the final solution but three phases: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. Inspiration is the problem or opportunity that motivates the search for solutions, Ideation is the process of generating, developing, and testing ideas and Implementation is the path that leads from the project stage into people’s lives.

That last phase, implementation, is why simply saying NO as I did to my friend is as unacceptable and as much a cop out as skipping the inspiration phase! My advice to the students: good design is as much about listening and critical thinking as it is about doing. And perhaps what is most important is communicating the value of the design process and outcomes in a narrative the client can understand and that relates to their life.


IDEO.com – about IDEO’s design thinking process

Lahade, Sudhakar;  Sharing thoughts in a highly evocative presentation at Steelcase in Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.

Spradlin, Dwayne; Are You Solving the Right Problems? Harvard Business Review, September 2012

Spradlin, Dwayne; The Power of Defining the Problem. HBR Blog, September 25, 2012








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