May 1, 2015

Three Ways to Ask Better Questions

If you’re reading this, odds are good you’re using Perforce Helix for a reason: to build products that your customers want to use. Here at Perforce, our User Experience (UX) team is constantly engaged in user research to learn more about our existing and potential customers, so we know we're building products that solve real problems.

You can learn from this too. If you know how to ask great questions, you can uncover truly interesting data!

Here are three ways to improve your question-asking so you can understand your own customers better.

Tip #1: When you’re talking to customers, always ask “why.” Dig a little deeper.

Imagine this hypothetical interaction…

Customer:  I want Product X to give me the ability to change color schemes. Not having this ability is a blocker for me to use the software.

You: Why?

Customer: I don’t like the current color scheme. It’s too harsh on my eyes.

You: Interesting. Tell me more? 

Customer:  I’m color blind. In order for me to see the difference between red and green (which this product uses to indicate important information), I have to turn my monitor contrast way up.

We could have just built a muted color scheme. But because we know what the real problem is now, we can create a palette that doesn’t rely on reds and greens to convey important information. Now we can design a solution that they will be happier about, and we can do it faster.

We’ve just learned a lot more about the customer’s real needs simply by sitting with the problem for two questions, and listening deeply.

Next time you try to solve your customers’ needs, try asking “why” and sitting with the problem a little longer before you build out a solution. You’ll find you’re meeting their needs much more efficiently and thoroughly, and you might just see better business results.

The next question-asking tip is a doozy...

Tip #2: Don’t ask the customer what they want.

… wait, what?

It’s true. And it’s not just me saying so.

The first rule of user research: never ask anyone what they want.

- Erika Hall, Just Enough Research

Here’s the problem: if you ask the customer what they want, you will only discover what they consider to be the solution, and it will take you longer to get to the root cause of the problem. You might never uncover the real issue they’re experiencing.

Here are three questions to ask instead.

What are you trying to get done? And why?

This lets you understand the problem the customer is currently experiencing. You can determine if the customer’s needs can be met with an existing process rather than developing a whole new feature, for example. And you can understand the purpose behind their actions.

How do you currently do this? 

This lets you analyze their workflow, including (and this is important) any workarounds they’ve put in place. You can use your understanding of these workarounds to brainstorm ideas for features.

What could be better about how you do this?

This is where the feature requests will happen. You'll still get their great ideas, but having some context before you get to this point can spark a better conversation.

Additionally, if you are thinking about building a whole new product, this is when you can determine if the potential new product meets their needs.

Tip #3: Ask open-ended questions to uncover stories.

If a question has a "yes" o a "no" answer, it's probably not worth asking. And more generally, if a question can be answered in one word, there's almost certainly a better way to ask it so you get useful data and spark a longer conversation. Closed-ended questions rarely yield meaningful insights; open-ended question generate stories.

In general, seek to get stories from customers—not validation. Stories are powerful.


Instead of this:      Ask this instead:
Do you ever need to do X task?      Can you tell me about the last time you needed to accomplish X task?
Are you happy with your current software?Why did you choose your current software?
Did you like the installation experience?How did the installation go?
Do you continuous delivery?Tell me about your build pipeline and workflow.
In the meantime, would you help us with our research? We are trying to dig deeply into how different kinds of people collaborate. Please fill out our quick survey (it should take less than five minutes). You will be helping us build better products. Stay tuned for more tips on understanding your customers better! Thank You!