Where Science Meets Muse

The Princess and the Pea, User-Centered Design, and asking “Why?”

Posted by Plish on May 1, 2009

Sometimes 'Smaller' Doesn't Help...

Sometimes 'Smaller' Doesn't Help...

I was talking to a nurse about a particular medical device. She looked at it and said, “You need to make it smaller.”

“Why?” I asked -having a gut feeling that it didn’t need to be much smaller based on some in-field research.

“Because it’s too big. It get’s pressed onto the skin like this, and then…then it’s uncomfortable for the patient.”

“What do you mean?” I continued.

“It digs into the skin.”

“What about holding it,” I took a slightly different direction, “How does it feel?”

“Just about right, I wouldn’t change it too much.”

The picture came together all at once.  “So, do you think it needs to be smaller or more comfortable?”

“More comfortable- definitely!  Yeah, not too much smaller, I’d have trouble holding it like this with my stubby fingers.”

Sometimes when you’re asking people to give input on a product/process, the first words out of their mouths aren’t really what they mean.  In this case, ‘smaller’ did not mean ‘smaller’, it meant, ‘more comfortable for the patient.’

The result of not asking “Why?” could have been disastrous.  If I took the “make it smaller” statement at face value, I could have developed a product that was smaller (even less comfortable for the patient-think “Princess and the Pea”), and harder to handle – missing on two accounts.

Children are great at asking, “Why?”.  They don’t care about looking stupid, about not having all the answers – – they just want to learn.

So next time you’re trying to solve a problem, ask “Why?”…multiple times.  This technique works great for everything, even problem statements. For example:

Problem Statement: In what ways might we make this thingamabob smaller?

Why does it need to be smaller?

Because it needs to fit in this slot.

Why does it need to fit in the slot?

Because that’s how it turns this other doohickey on.

Why does it have to turn it on?

Um…it doesn’t…maybe being smaller isn’t what this thingamabob needs to be.

For another great perspective  on the pitfalls of not asking “why?” check out this blog entry.


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