I’ve always had an intense curiosity and love of asking questions…coupled with a fear of sounding foolish. It’s a complicated relationship.
A big part of my job as an Experience Designer is to help companies solve problems. I have to walk a thin line: I need to be the expert who has answers, but I also need to ask the right questions to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. Experience has taught me that sometimes the simplest questions can be the smartest ones to ask. By asking simple questions, you can gain a better understanding of the “why” behind your project.
“Questions are your pickaxes. Good questions are what open people up, open new doors, and create opportunities.”
— Tim Ferriss
Asking the right questions can help you understand some important context of a project that clients may unintentionally leave out. For me to be successful, I need to ask my client the right questions and quickly get up to speed to create a plan to solve their problem. These techniques for asking questions help me understand my clients better, build empathy for them, and quickly jump into the design process.
Engage in Active Listening
Active listening is all about building rapport, understanding, and trust. Active listening helps you not only hear another person but also to get a deeper understanding of the message they are communicating. The first step of active listening is simple: pay attention. Put your phone away, close your laptop and focus your undivided attention on the person you’re speaking with. Notice their body language, tonality, and any pauses in their conversation. Mirror and paraphrase their key points to make sure you understand what they are saying. Finally, be sure to ask clarifying questions if you need additional information. Active listening helps to establish trust with your client and reassures them you have a grasp of the problem at hand.
“I often take short notes during interviews to remember key points that I want to circle back to without interrupting the conversation.”
Understand the Context
Often, there’s a fundamental question at the center of a story that no one’s asking. As an outsider, often you ’ll lack the context of a project’s history which your client may already have. You also have to understand how the project fits into the broader initiatives of the organization. Some questions that may help you understand the context and make better decisions for your project:
Why is this the right time to dive into this project?
This question can uncover contributing factors and constraints why this project is a priority.
Tell me about the history of this project.
This question uncovers a lot of the “why” behind the decisions already made and can reveal the historical thinking of the organization and stakeholders.
What does success look like when we finish?
This question gives a great framework for clients to communicate their goals for the project.
How will success be measured?
If a client hasn’t already talked about the metrics they will use to measure success you should ask what they will be. Metrics will give your team concrete guidance on how your client stakeholder or team is weighing progress and success.
The Simpler the Question, the Better
Sometimes it’s hard to recognize when we are making false assumptions. To prevent this, I often take a step back and ask myself if need to validate any of my assumptions. Sometimes validating assumptions takes the form of asking simple questions. Too many times I’ve walked away from an interview without asking the seemingly obvious question and later found out the answer was different than I assumed. If you have a question that keeps coming up for you, chances are others are probably wondering the same. If you can’t answer the “why?” you have some more work to do to understand the problem. Asking a good question can take a conversation with your client in an entirely new direction. The right question can unlock new possibilities and shift the way you think about a solution. It can ignite the possibility of discovery.
The writer Malcolm Gladwell talks admirably about his father’s curiosity and never-ending, unashamedly asking of questions.
“My father has zero intellectual insecurities …It has never crossed his mind to be concerned that the world thinks he’s an idiot. He’s not in that game. So, if he doesn’t understand something, he just asks you. He doesn’t care if he sounds foolish.”
— Malcolm Gladwell
Diving into a client’s world to solve a problem for them can be overwhelming, complex, and a little harrowing. But it’s also exciting to start an adventure of falling in love with a problem and deeply understanding the people it affects. When you learn to listen for nuance, you’ll uncover thoughts and feelings just underneath the surface. And if you have a question, don’t be afraid to ask.