14 Mar

Channel your inner toddler


When my son was a toddler, his favorite question was “Why?”  Here is a typical conversation:

Me (getting him ready to go out the door): “Let’s go buddy, put your rainboots on!”

Him:  “Why?”

Me: “Because it’s raining out.”
Him: “Why?”

Me:  “Because the water vapor in the air needed to be released.”  (Yes.  I really said that.  It’s never too early to teach them a little meteorology, right?)

Him: “Why?”

You get the idea.

And while my strategy was admittedly not that successful in getting him to put his @#^&!$ boots on, it did teach him a lot about how the world works.

In fact, what always got me about these conversations was how deeply and inevitably we ended up in the realms of topics like thermodynamics, astrophysics, or philosophy. (“Why IS it impolite to throw your peas at the wall?”)

I’ve always been pleasantly surprised by how quickly one can get down to fundamentals with a (rather annoying) series of “why” questions.

This isn’t a new idea.  It was famously part of Toyota’s management methodology breakthrough, which advocated asking “why” five times to get to the root of a particular problem.

Likewise, I have found it to be a surprisingly simple and effective way to get to the heart of customer feedback.

The challenge, after all, is in separating what customers ASK FOR (features) from what they really NEED (solutions) in achieving their goals. Asking “why” can get you the insight you need.

Consider this example conversation:

Customer: “What we really need is a button that lets me email this to myself.  Right over here – on the top left.”

If you take that comment at face value, you’ll probably walk away with a note that says, “Add an ‘email to me’ button on the top left”.  Easy peasy.

But not so fast, the bloat-ware graveyard is filled with products that were developed with this superficial approach. Better to ask a few “whys”.

Me (playing the annoying toddler):  “That’s interesting; tell me why you need that button.”

Customer: “Because I need to have a copy of this for my records.”

Now you’re thinking, “Oh, this customer must be one of the stupid ones who didn’t see the ‘save to archive’ button that does exactly that.  What a dope.”

But wait, maybe we can ask “why” again.

Me: “Hmm.  Do you keep all your records in email?”

Customer: “Well it depends.  In this case, when I save it to archive, it’s a hassle because it’s in your proprietary report format and I can’t easily get at the data.”

Me: “Why do you need to get at the data?”

Customer:  “I need to create reports for my boss, and I need the data from a couple of places in your app.  When I use your archive feature, I can never find where it gets saved, and it uses your private format, which I can’t use easily.  So right now I copy and paste what I need into a spreadsheet and create the report from there.”

Ah.  Now we’re getting to the heart of things.

So what this customer REALLY wanted wasn’t an email.  He simply wanted to create a report that wasn’t currently produced by the application.  Hmm… now who’s the dope?

Once you understand the underlying roadblock that is motivating a specific feature request, you are empowered to solve the actual problem at hand.

So, the next time you find yourself listening to a customer want, go ahead and channel your inner toddler and ask “why” a few times.  Just remember, it’s still impolite to throw your peas.