It’s Not The What, It’s The Why

This is a refreshed version of an article I previously wrote. It’s a story I’ve used to teach new design researchers & strategists how to conduct interviews. It has been (affectionately?) referred to by Allison McKeever as, “The Dead Dad Candy Story.” In essence, it’s about getting to the Jobs To Be Done of the products you hire. Back when I wrote this originally, I would have just referred to them as latent needs. I’ve noticed with this and the recent Comfort In The Discomfort post, that I have a POV that, during the beginning of projects, you don’t know anything. Assumptions are killers.  

The hardest thing to get your arms around as a Design Strategist is the truth that, in the beginning of a project or problem, we don’t know ANYTHING…and that’s OKAY! With Design Strategy, not only is it okay to not know, it’s imperative to not think you know. 

When conducting interviews, it can be easy to think that digging deeper to find the why in the meaning will sound foolish or naive which, in turn, leads us to making an assumption and bypassing additional questioning. But the best Design Strategists aren’t afraid to appear ignorant about the topic they’re researching. 

Pretend you’ve been hired by a candy company to gain customer understanding to “design a new candy.” (Hint: in this example, they probably framed the request incorrectly.) 

Interviewee: I love candy.
Design Strategist (thinking, “Of course you do, everyone does, candy is awesome.”): Really, what is it about candy that you like?
Interviewee: I like it because it’s sweet.
Design Strategist (thinking, “Yeah, that’s why everyone loves candy.” It’d be really easy to stop here and eventually come back with a recommendation to create a sweeter candy.) What is it about sweetness that you like? 
Interviewee: It reminds me of when I was a kid.
Design Strategist: What is your favorite candy? 
Interviewee: Almond Joy.
Design Strategist: Was that your favorite candy when you were a kid?
Interviewee: Yeah, as long as I can remember.
Design Strategist: What story comes to mind when you think about being a kid and eating an Almond Joy?* 
Interviewee: Well, I remember my mom buying me them when I was a kid, when my dad was out of town. He traveled a lot for work, and I think it was her way of comforting me. He passed away a couple years ago, and being busy, I really don’t feel like I had done a good job at being a significant part of my parents’ lives since I left for college. A few weeks after he died, I took my mom an Almond Joy and we walked down to the park to eat it, just like we did when I was a kid when my dad was out of town. It was like all the years melted away and I was just a kid connecting with his mom in a way I hadn’t in a really long time. Now, once a month we meet up at a park in a town that’s about halfway between each of our houses, we eat an Almond Joy and just catch up. 

Without prodding, an interviewee will tell you the WHAT (I like candy). A bit of prodding will get you to the HOW (I get my candy fix via Almond Joy). But you’re really going after the WHY (Almond Joys remind me of my childhood, my father that wasn’t there as much as I wanted him to be, and my mother that was always there, making sure I was okay). Hopefully you can see how that leads to a whole different set of recommendations for new products. Maybe it would prompt discussions with the candy company about the actual business they are in. Are they in the business of manufacturing candy, or creating artifacts that punctuate memories for people?

If you stop at the what or how, you’ll insert YOUR why, which isn’t THEIR why. Again, you don’t know anything, because you’re not the interviewee. It’s not often we actually care about the what, it’s all about the why. 

There’s a quote that’s attributed to Henry Ford**, that people use to disregard user feedback: “If I’d asked my customers what they wanted, they’d have said a faster horse.” 

The faster horse is the WHAT. The HOW of autos doesn’t catch the real value either…providing an affordable and quick way to move from my home to my job. But the WHY in this case is the opportunity to enter the middle class. Ford provided a way for the masses to go from relatively poor to middle class, by creating an affordable way for people to secure higher paying factory jobs. There’s really no point in a bunch of people moving around a city quickly for no reason, it was about social mobility. 

Understanding and exposing the why creates a new lens for people and organizations to figure out how to address the Jobs To Be Done, or peoples’ latent needs, the needs they don’t know how to express nor articulate. 

*I’ve noticed, that even when I write it into the discussion guide, many interviewers are afraid or hesitant to ask the interviewee to tell a story. DON’T BE!

**The attribution of this quote to Henry Ford is absurd. Henry Ford invented the assembly line (a couple hundred years after Adam Smith). In my mind, an assembly line has nothing to do with faster horses. When people use this, I assume they’re attributing Ford with the invention of the automobile, which, depending on how you slice it, was invented by Carl Benz (with financial and engineering contributions from his wife, Bertha Benz) almost 30 years before Ford made any car. Clearly this is an annoyance of mine.

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