Discovery: Why “Why?” is a Critical Question for Long-term Success

discovery phase of user research-why why is a critical question

Imagine this: you’re about to embark on a new project, and you find yourself in a room full of people who have been thinking for a long time about the work you’re about begin.

Sometimes they say things like:

“It’s just THIS. We already have a working version of it—which you can look at—and there are some things about it that are sort of broken, but we just want you to look at it and make it better. Just do that.”

Sometimes the people in the room have important job titles like Director of Strategic Development or Vice President of Technology and there’s a lot of pressure for you to say, “Yes. We can look at the sort-of-broken thing and try to fix it and also make it work better.”

Questions First, Actions Later

Sometimes, the better approach rather than jumping right in to fix the perceived problem is to LISTEN to what they have to say and then ask questions about WHY they are trying to do what they think they want to do. Questions like:

Why was it built in the first place?

Why do you want to change it?

Why are we here?

If you are an innate problem-solver, asking questions may not be your first reaction – but the value of being an active listener and asking questions first can often far surpass the value of simply “fixing” a problem.

Chances are, the person you’re working with has lived with their somewhat-broken-thing for a LONG TIME and now that you’ve agreed to help make it better, there’s a lot of pressure to fix it ASAP.

Rising Above the Problem

Unfortunately, a problem-oriented approach can lead to skipping over critical information uncovered during a thoughtful discovery process. At the beginning of a new project, it’s important to start with a series of discovery meetings, stakeholder interviews and competitive analysis tasks in order to learn more about the business goals at hand.


The discovery phase of the project provides opportunities for solutions to present themselves separate from the day-to-day activities of supporting a project. For example, during a competitive analysis we would uncover which of your competitors are presenting the same data in the same way… same displays, same organization of information, same functionality, etc.

Some questions might be:

Why is it done this way?

Do you have any research or analytics to confirm this is the most user-friendly way to organize the content?

This is the time to conduct stakeholder interviews and online surveys to determine if the current layouts work best for your users. Depending on the results, it may be necessary to rework the current workflow to make it easier for users to find what they’re looking for.

Build a Good Foundation

Rushing in to try and resolve project pain points without going through a discovery process can be tempting, but it is likely not the most efficient in the long-run. Consider a case where there are work-arounds in place and the goal is really a much broader view and a totally new system that works, is simpler to use and looks nothing like the current, sort of broken, sort of working environment.

Have you ever heard the saying “nine women can’t have a baby in one month.”? This is a good analogy for engaging in a user-focused development approach. It takes time to complete a project well, and simply adding more people to the team doesn’t always mean that you will produce high-quality work in less time.

The discovery phase of the project is sometimes described as the foundational work that’s done when constructing a house. You don’t just start building out new rooms and new levels onto an existing structure without first confirming the foundation of the home will support the additional weight and structural changes.

Engaging in a “why” exercise with various stakeholders from different teams will help shed light on blind spots and underscore the importance of defining why are you doing what you are doing. It also provides a foundation for the evaluation portion of the project where you define how you know you’ve been successful.