In an earlier post I described a project that produced a perfectly good result, but not the result required. This is inevitable — it will happen to everyone buying or selling creative work — and it can be quite demoralizing. As someone in the business of delivering custom services or products, figuring out what people want is the most challenging, most important thing you can do. And you can do it by repeating a single mantra.

A friend once asked a capable carpenter to install a door over a hole in the drywall of her basement where some plumbing valves were accessed. After a day of work she was aghast to discover that the carpenter had bought a full-sized closet door, built a frame for it, drywalled the frame, painted it and even installed a doorknob. The work was high quality and fairly priced. But she wanted a tiny little access hatch — a foot square, maybe — not a giant closet door. She paid the carpenter’s bill, then hired another carpenter to tear the door down and put in a little access hatch.

This has probably happened to you, too. Have you ever realized when your food arrived in a restaurant that you were hungry for something different? Have you ever begrudgingly paid for a service (a haircut, say) that is acceptable, but not what you really wanted?

what a mistake

It is easy to say, “The carpenter should have known his customer wanted a little access door, not a big closet door.” And maybe he should have. But should the barber have known what haircut you had in mind? Should the server have guessed that you wanted a different entree than the one you ordered?

Surely at some point in your journey you’ve thrown away days or weeks of work after a new detail or requirement emerged at the last minute. Almost everyone has. Why didn’t you know what to produce the first time?

Well, it’s because knowing what people want when they ask for something is hard. People often don’t know what they want, or don’t know how to ask for it. Delivering what they actually want requires you to interpret many layers of motivation and establish a shared understanding of the actual desire.

Arrow on flyer layers

Some of us are born with an innate ability to understand what people want very quickly. Others learn to do so by mastering a particular domain. Occasionally a shared understanding is based on a long relationship — it is easier to anticipate your friends than it is to anticipate strangers, after all. But for most of us, on most projects, establishing a shared understanding requires hard work. The sooner we do this work on a project, the less effort we waste.

Every project has a desired outcome — it’s one of the principal characteristics of a project. But in countless projects, the stated outcome would never be enough on its own to satisfy the sponsor or customer. Consider the following common projects:

  • Redesign the website
  • Rewrite the application using Python
  • Make a a new logo

They seem quite clear, don’t they? They’re just as obvious as, “Put a door over the hole in the wall.” It’s simple: Buy a door, frame it in, do some finish work. Make some new website designs that the customer likes. Reproduce the functionality in Python. Keep drawing logos until the customer likes one. Done and done, right?

Lorde Gelo

Bah. That isn’t a list of desired outcomes, it’s a list of implementation details. Those aren’t ends, they’re means. They’re the work you — the expert — do when you’re trying to deliver the thing. But they’re definitely not the thing you’re trying to deliver.

When someone asks you to redesign their website, ask them “Why?”.  They must have something in mind, something they think will happen if you redesign their website. How can you do a good job if you don’t know what that thing is? And when they say, “To make it look more modern,” you say, “Why?” Again, they must have some reason to believe they need a modern-looking website. And when they say, “So more people will visit the site and stay longer,” you say, “Why?” “Because if more people visit the site and stay longer, I can join a better advertising network.” “Why?”

Eventually, after playing 3-year-old for long enough, you’ll have your answer: “Because advertisements on this site are how I make my money, and I’m not hitting my goals right now.” Aha! It has nothing to do with modern design. Design is just an implementation detail. The customer wants to show different advertisements and thereby increase revenues; they think they can get there with a new site design; and they’re willing to invest in that theory. Now you can actually apply your expertise to the customer’s needs. Now you’re solving the right problem.

Almost always, asking “Why?” will reveal how faulty the initial project description was, and how far off-track you might have gone if you didn’t ask. That’s when you get to demonstrate the hard-won experience of a craftsman:

The Cutler's Hands

  • “You don’t need to rebuild the application in Python. You just need to add indexes to your database.”
  • “You don’t need a new logo, you need different colors.”
  • “You don’t actually want me to install a door there. You just need to cover this hole in the wall with a little access hatch, right?”

Extracting enough information to build the right thing can take a lot of time and may require asking and answering the same question over and over. During this exercise it sometimes feels like nothing is happening at all. But what is happening means everything to your project.

Sometimes, this approach simply won’t reveal the information you need to deliver a good project. And, unfortunately, you won’t know that until you’ve already done some work. So, in another blog post I will explain how inexpensive prototypes can help. Hint: Building the wrong thing allows you to ask, “Why not?”


3 thoughts on “Why?

  1. muf says:

    i’d like to note that when you ask for a door, you get a door. if you want a hatch, ask a hatch.
    ie the friend is wrong and the analogy not completely adequate. it wasn’t a hard one to miss. it’s like asking blue and getting angry when you don’t get red. or asking an apple, receiving one and complaining that you wanted an orange. what I’m saying is that your friend should think a little bit.

    I think that quite often the issue is indeed, much, much more subtle.

    so yes, communication is not always easy, and people DO NOT read your mind 🙂 Specing stuff out properly with the right trade off of details and conciseness is very important.

  2. You ended the why-game too early.

    Society accepts “make money” as an ultimate purpose, which often works fine. But if you think about it, there’s no reason to stop there in your example. The reason people make money is to buy and do the things they want, and the reason they want to buy and do the things they want is because they predict it will make them happy. That might not be the end either, but most people are happy to end it there — excuse the pun.

    This is extremely pertinent, precisely because you are trying to get a better idea of what the “right” thing to do is based on what a person ultimately wants. The person who asked for their website to look more modern may have done so with financial reward in mind, but it’s likely they also did so because a more modern looking website will directly make them happier (as well as a panoply of other intermediate purposes, like contributing to pride, interest, motivation, etc.) And because people are complicated beings, who aren’t always perfectly self-aware, they may not even realise that’s why they asked.

  3. Hoosteeno says:

    Steven, you’re quite right — thanks for pointing that out. Most folks will have more than one reason to ask for what they’re asking for. I think we agree that many times, what they’re asking for is an imperfect description of what they want. Part of our job is to help perfect the request.

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