One simple question to get to the root of any design problem Design

One simple question to get to the root of any design problem

I believe that the difference between a good and a poor UX designer is that a good UX designer finds out all the questions a user has and answers them well in his design. A poor UX designer creates a design that actually raises more questions than it solves. Let me explain a method I use to get to the good questions.

The question is half the answer

If you have those questions, you have half the answers, so gathering them is a very important and very difficult part of a designers job. Especially because halfway in a project you start to learn a lot about the subject you are designing, so the user’s questions are not necessarily the same as the ones that pop into your mind.

Lately in just about any presentation about user experience there is a message is that we should utilize knowledge that is already there. In a search for persuasive design we should look at PR and things like “The psychology of persuasion”. To create usable designs we should look at ergonomics and to create consistent self optimizing systems we can use design patterns (just like architects do).

Sakichi Toyoda’s 5 Whys


For finding the right questions in my design, I use the 5 Whys of Sakichi Toyoda. Nicknamed ‘the Edison of Japan’, Sakichi Toyoda was born in 1867, founded the Toyota company, and was seen as the father of the industrial revolution. He discovered that you can get to the root of every problem by asking why five times, like in the following example:

The car has broken down,

  1. Why? Because the motor wont start.
  2. Why? Because there is not enough oxygen to allow ignition.
  3. Why? Because there is no air flowing through the air filter.
  4. Why? Because it hasn’t been cleaned for a while.
  5. Why? Because users don’t know where to find it.

Solution: mark the airfilter and tell users that they should regularly clean it.

Of course the fifth question is arbitrary, and I think it’s more of a rule of thumb than a fact. Personally I find that whenever you’re entering a loop of why questions, the right question is within the reach of 5 Whys.

Whys and the Web

So how to go about asking these questions when I don’t have cluttered airfilters, but a website with a product? When designing a website you rarely solve a single problem, you much more solve a need. That need is exactly what you should use as a starting point. So here’s an example how this would work with the website of the Apple iPod Touch:

The business goal is pretty obvious on this page (it’s the call to action button) “Buy Now“.

  1. Why buy an iPod Touch now?
    Because seeing is still not believing (I think this is very smart copy for “It looks unbelievably gorgeous”)

  2. Why does it look unbelievably gorgeous?
    Because of the Retina Display

  3. Why does it look unbelievably gorgeous with Retina display?
    Because thanks to the retina display everything you see and do on iPod touch looks amazing

  4. Why does everything look amazing?
    Thats because the Retina display’s pixel density is so high our eye is unable to distinguish individual pixels.

  5. Why is the Retina display’s pixel density so high?
    So everything looks amazing, see question 3.

You see how this quickly gets to the bottom of things.

The 5 Whys of Toyoda always help me a lot, especially when I get stuck in a design process or when I see a design that doesnt feel right and try to explain why it isn’t right. I hope it will help you in making usable designs that solve user needs.

5 comments

  1. Andy

    Great article!

    This is a new approach for me – have you any further examples to demonstrate how it can be applied?

  2. Richard de Vries

    Hi Andy,

    Thanks for your comment. The other examples I generally use are in dutch :( But if you have one a site or a design challenge I can use, reply here and I’ll demonstrate on that.

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  5. Chintan

    Superb! So simple yet so insightful.

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