Asking the right questions

I get asked this question a lot: “- so, what is it you do, exactly…?” – as in, what, practically, does it mean to work as a user/customer experience specialist, to work with experience and behavioural economy, to work as a design thinker?
What would one get in return, practically speaking, if one were to pay me money?

And yes, I confess that I do struggle a bit with the answer, because even though I’ve done these things in literally every position I’ve had for more than a decade, these all had a different face value – manager, assistant manager, sales & service, communications etc. Which makes sense because working in a user-centered manner is something one does as a quality of doing something else – you can do product development, and you can do user-centered product development. Communication, and user-centered communication. And so forth. It’s a value-added characteristic.

All of that doesn’t do much to answer the question, though, but maybe this does:

What I do is deploy knowledge, methods and techniques that get you to ask the right questions, find the answers to them, and use those answers in aid of your business proposition.


“I wonder what he does” she pondered, photogenically… 

Let me illustrate by way of some examples – first off, what is this “asking questions” stuff? Well, any business is an answer to some questions, the most basic one, of course, being “how are we going to make money?”. If you think, though, that that’s the only one that matters – which to a certain extent is what MBA’s and other business students are taught – then you’re dramatically wrong. This becomes clear when you start proposing answers to the question:

  • securities fraud?
  • by selling drugs?
  • by selling people (whole or in parts)?
  • profit-maximizing by using slave labour?

And so on, you get the picture – the point of which is not that profit or business is evil, but that even though those examples all answer the question “how can we make money”, they’re not the kind of answers we’re looking for (I should bloody well hope not, anyway). That’s because the question is inadequate – yes, we need to have a plan that includes making money but we need more questions:

  • what do we stand for?
  • what are we good at?
  • what kind of ressources can we get/do we want to work with?
  • what do we want people to think of us, before and after they become our customers?
  • and so on and so forth.

The answers to these questions inform your business strategy, vision, mission etc., and part of that should be your user-centered work. Which is really people-centered – and yes, people are crucially important to your business; they buy your stuff (hopefully), they work for your company, they’re central to everything, in a completely mundane and practical sense.

OK, so for example, let’s say you want to produce and sell internet-connected home installations, because you’ve heard of the internet of things and you want in. Great, then we need to get a handle on your questions – which could be something like these:

  • which people are we going to target in the first wave, tech first-movers, regular consumers, luxury consumers, resellers etc.?
  • how are we going to persuade them, taking into account both what they know (and don’t know), want and need, and our ambition to not be forgotten as a silly novelty in six months?
  • what is our value proposition to people, in return for which we’ll want them to give us money?

You might be feeling a bit of a “Duh!” in your soul right now, if this is the kind of things you normally care about, but you should know that asking questions like these, much less actually looking at real people to answer them (and even less using those answers to further business in a people-centered way), isn’t something that’s normally taught in business school. If you propose such issues to “classical” business folks you’ll often get reactions to the effect of “of course we’re going to look at that, goes without saying” – but it really, really doesn’t go without saying. It really doesn’t.You should also know that deliberately asking and answering them, even if it isn’t down to success or failure, can still improve your business markedly, even dramatically.

Answering the questions naturally leads to other questions – like if we’re picking target segments we’ll need to know more about them, and about how they relate to our kind of products and the processes they’re part of. Also, as we intend to expand into other segments, how does that work with existing (by then) ones – and does any of this reflect back on the product… or, you know, something else, because that’s the point: Finding the right questions.

Your User Specialist is a facilitator in that process, helping you discern which answers to pursue and how far, and which ones are not so relevant. Not by making those decisions for you but by helping you assign value to each pursuit: – what will it be worth to you, what will it give you to answer this or that question? This makes it possible for you to prioritize, and to sort out which issues to pursue and which ones to drop.

Another function of the Specialist is to serve as a mediator between you and your users/customers (and indeed your employees), setting up tests and making them relevant and relatable to you, as well as to your users, provide knowledge and research, interpret results for you etc.

A lot of this may sound like someone like me will come barging in and suggest major changes, or outright tell you to throw everything in your strategic playbook out the window and start over – but that’s not the case at all. Often you’ll find that aligning what you’re already doing with a people-centered value proposition is totally doable with reasonable change, because as I mentioned up top, it’s very much a value-added process.

Sometimes, though, real change does have to happen, and if so it’s likely to be a culture change – but that kind of thing is almost certainly familiar to you, too; you’ve encountered initiatives to build a work culture of efficiency, or to make the culture more collaborative, or competitive… well, this one is about building a people-centered value culture, and that will be the topic of a later article.

Stay tuned.