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By Naomi Cherne

In a courageous parenting move, my parents not only encouraged the question “why?” but also taught that an unaccompanied “because” (as in “Because I said so!”) was not an acceptable answer. We children embraced this cognitive tool, much to the chagrin of babysitters. There was much to learn, and each answer raised new questions. Why do I have to wear mittens? Why is it cold outside? Why is it winter?

Years later, not much has changed: people are still paid to undergo my “why” barrage. However, these people are no longer overwhelmed babysitters; they are participants in usability studies and their answers help improve product designs.

Generally speaking, a typical goal of a usability study is to get people to try to use a product or system (let’s say a new mitten design), and to understand why they took any unintended actions (let’s say wore it inside-out). Researchers ask questions to uncover root causes (for example, that the outer fabric looked like it should go on the inside because it’s the same material often used as liner), and root causes can highlight the parts of a design that contribute to use issues (for example, the fabric’s appearance) as well as indicate what design changes could mitigate use issues (for example, try a different fabric). A usability study should tell you what parts of your design are problems, and give you ideas about how to fix them.

But don’t people hate being asked “why, why, why”? Won’t the participant just sigh like exasperated babysitters and snap “because that’s how the mitten goes”? This can certainly happen; the word “why” can put people on the defensive, and people aren’t used to consciously identifying and articulating the root causes of their actions. A skilled study moderator can draw out layers of useful information without becoming annoying.

There are many ways to ask “why” without asking “why”. For example, we can use open-ended questions to invite a narrative about what the person was seeing, feeling, and thinking when they were deciding how to use the product. Another strategy is to focus on the product rather than on the person. These and other methods help study participants become partners in exploration who work with us, rather overwhelmed objects of inquiry.

In usability research, an unaccompanied “because” is not a useful answer. Study participants often need gentle guidance to embrace the inquisitive onslaught.