7 Simple Ways to Get Better Results From Ethnographic Research
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The 5 Whys method is an iterative interrogative technique pioneered at Toyota Motor Corporation in the 1930s to explore the cause-and-effect relationships underlying a specific problem. By working back the cause of one effect to another up to five times, designers can expose root causes and explore effective solutions.
“Be ahead of the times through endless creativity, inquisitiveness and pursuit of improvement.”
— Sakichi Toyoda, Japanese industrialist and inventor who formulated the 5 Whys method
See why 5 Whys is such a valuable tool.
To ask why something happened is a natural, effective way to uncover a problem, be it a high bounce rate on a website, a marketplace failure or anything else you may want to know about users, etc. However, cause-and-effect chains can be long and complex. Whether they occur in the natural or human world, end-result events rarely happen in isolation with only one cause to trigger them. The effects of one action or condition can be so far-reaching that it’s easy to jump to conclusions when you look at the end result. The greater the number of removes—or steps in a cause-and-effect chain—the more effort and insight it will take to work your way back to what actually started the whole sequence of events that ultimately resulted in the problem at hand. If you overlook any factors involved, you might end up making assumptions—and it’s essential to discard assumptions in user experience (UX) design.
The 5 Whys method was developed to work back to a root cause of a mechanical problem by a total of five removes. Toyota’s famous example illustrates the simple nature but immense power of the technique:
Why did the robot stop? The circuit overloaded, making a fuse blow.
Why? There was insufficient lubrication on the bearings, so they locked up.
Why? The oil pump on the robot wasn’t circulating enough oil.
Why? The pump intake was clogged with metal shavings.
Why? There was no filter on the pump.
In UX design—for example service design—system failures can be far more intricate than this. Users are humans who act in complex contexts, and their behaviors (and reasons for these) can be difficult to decipher, especially with so many channels and parts of their user journeys for you to examine. Most of what we first see when we look at an apparent problem (or, rather, its end result) is just on the surface. Symptoms can be misleading. On that note—and even more importantly for modern designers—the 5 Whys is an essential tool to dig down to root causes on a bigger scale. As cognitive science and user experience expert Don Norman advises in his 21st century design, human-centered design and humanity-centered design approaches, designers who want to effect real change in solving complex global-level problems need to get beneath the symptoms and apparent causes to discover and address what’s really going on. If you don’t solve the right problem—and work with the root cause—the symptoms will just come back.
You can use 5 Whys anytime in your design process, but it’s particularly helpful early on when you need to understand the problem facing your users, customers and/or stakeholders. As such, it’s a valuable aid in design thinking. When you conduct user research, the answers you can get by asking “why” repeatedly can arm your design team with many insights from users—insights which you can leverage to identify the real or underlying problem, and then iteratively gear your ideation efforts more accurately around it. You can use 5 Whys to:
Determine what’s important from the user’s/customer’s/stakeholder’s viewpoint.
Explore why users/customers/stakeholders think, feel and do what they do.
Analyze the information.
Five Whys is especially helpful to use in the empathize stage of design thinking, when you’re gathering the information you need so you can proceed to define the problem to address. It’s exactly as it sounds: you:
Base the first question on the apparent end result.
Form the second question on the answer to this.
Form the third question on the answer to the second question.
Form the fourth question on the answer to the third.
Form the fifth question on the answer to the fourth.
For example: “Not as many customers are subscribing to the website’s newsletter after the design changed.”
Why? Most of them click the subscription-related button within two seconds after it appears.
Why? Because they’re used to seeing subscription-prompting pop-ups.
Why? Because the internet is full of these.
Why? Because organizations have grown used to deploying these with an automatic opt-in dark pattern for users to find it harder not to subscribe.
Why? Because automatic opt-out buttons or allowing users to freely think about newsletter subscriptions (i.e., without guiding them with a design pattern) mean fewer subscriptions.
Here, it appears the designer failed to use the automatic opt-in design pattern.
You can frame your “why” questions with different wording (e.g., “What do you think made that happen?”).
Keep asking until you get to the root cause of why your users feel or behave a certain way. For example, if they say, “Because I felt like doing that,” try to prompt them to evaluate their statement (without annoying them).
You can ask fewer (or more) questions, whatever works.
Ask “Why?” even if you think you already know the answer: you may be surprised what insights you can evoke.
© Olya Kobruseva, CC0
Take our 21st Century Design course, featuring the 5 Whys template.
If you want to know more about how you can apply the 5 Whys and many other humanity-centered design tools to help solve the world’s biggest problems you can take our course Design for a Better World with Don Norman.
Read the inspiring book on how you can implement your design skills and knowledge to help solve complex global problems such as climate change, hunger and inequity. Norman, Donald A. Design for a Better World: Meaningful, Sustainable, Humanity Centered. Cambridge, MA, MA: The MIT Press, 2023.
You can use 5 Whys anytime in your design process. It’s particularly helpful early on when you need to understand the problem facing your users, customers and/or stakeholders. As such, it’s a valuable aid in the first phase of the design thinking process. Take our design thinking course and learn how to benefit from the 5 Whys method.
Read this UX Planet piece for in-depth insights on 5 Whys.
Here’s the entire UX literature on 5 Whys by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:
Take a deep dive into 5 Whys with our course Design for a Better World with Don Norman .
“Because everyone designs, we are all designers, so it is up to all of us to change the world. However, those of us who are professional designers have an even greater responsibility, for professional designers have the training and the knowledge to have a major impact on the lives of people and therefore on the earth.”
— Don Norman, Design for a Better World
Our world is full of complex socio-technical problems:
Unsustainable and wasteful practices that cause extreme climate changes such as floods and droughts.
Wars that worsen hunger and poverty.
Pandemics that disrupt entire economies and cripple healthcare.
Widespread misinformation that undermines education.
All these problems are massive and interconnected. They seem daunting, but as you'll see in this course, we can overcome them.
Design for a Better World with Don Norman is taught by cognitive psychologist and computer scientist Don Norman. Widely regarded as the father (and even the grandfather) of user experience, he is the former VP of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple and co-founder of the Nielsen Norman Group.
Don Norman has constantly advocated the role of design. His book “The Design of Everyday Things” is a masterful introduction to the importance of design in everyday objects. Over the years, his conviction in the larger role of design and designers to solve complex socio-technical problems has only increased.
This course is based on his latest book “Design for a Better World,” released in March 2023. Don Norman urges designers to think about the whole of humanity, not just individual people or small groups.
In lesson 1, you'll learn about the importance of meaningful measurements. Everything around us is artificial, and so are the metrics we use. Don Norman challenges traditional numerical metrics since they do not capture the complexity of human life and the environment. He advocates for alternative measurements alongside traditional ones to truly understand the complete picture.
In lesson 2, you'll learn about and explore multiple examples of sustainability and circular design in practice. In lesson 3, you'll dive into humanity-centered design and learn how to apply incremental modular design to large and complex socio-technical problems.
In lesson 4, you'll discover how designers can facilitate behavior-change, which is crucial to address the world's most significant issues. Finally, in the last lesson, you'll learn how designers can contribute to designing a better world on a practical level and the role of artificial intelligence in the future of design.
Throughout the course, you'll get practical tips to apply in real-life projects. In the "Build Your Case Study" project, you'll step into the field and seek examples of organizations and people who already practice the philosophy and methods you’ll learn in this course.
You'll get step-by-step guidelines to help you identify which organizations and projects genuinely change the world and which are superficial. Most importantly, you'll understand what gaps currently exist and will be able to recommend better ways to implement projects. You will build on your case study in each lesson, so once you have completed the course, you will have an in-depth piece for your portfolio.