Getting the Opportunity to Ask Why 5 Times (Or why stakeholder interviews can be more challenging than customer interviews)

Meg Davis  

March 21, 2011

Related Topics

For a recent project, I was in charge of user research for stakeholder interviews and customer interviews. I was using the IDEO Method cards to brainstorm methodologies for customer interviews, and I came across the card covering the "Five Whys" methodologies: "Ask 'Why' questions in response to five consecutive answers." Immediately, I thought to myself, "Wouldn't this be a great methodology for stakeholder interviews?"

Stakeholder interviews give us the ability to gather business requirements and to understand our client's deepest goals and drivers. It is our opportunity to start working as a team with the client. Oftentimes, though, stakeholder interviews can be more challenging to conduct and get the right information from than customer interviews. Why is this?

.    Internal politics muddy the waters of what is really going on in the business.
.    Executives' time is a scarce resource.
.    We have a longer engagement time with our stakeholders and therefore are seen as more a part of the organization.
.    We are supposed to be seen as "experts" - not clueless people asking questions.

Coming in as a consulting organization, we have the unique positioning to be able to talk with subject matter experts across our client's company. This often brings to light any internal organizational climates or political problems. Different people will give us different information. Of course, these disparities help us understand the internal culture of the company, but sometimes they can muddy the waters of the real state of the business. What if we had the opportunity to ask "Why" 5 times with each stakeholder?

Executives have a limited amount of time to discuss high-level directions for a company. What if we had the opportunity to sit down with the CEO and ask "Why" 5 times?

Because we have a longer engagement time with our stakeholders than we would with customers during customer interviews, stakeholders feel the pressure that they may not be able to fully disclose their opinions to us. Will we tell their bosses about what they said? We need to find a way to ask "Why" 5 times with each stakeholder.

The last challenge we face is that clients see us as the "experts." What business do the experts have being curious children about our business? Sometimes we receive pushback from clients, because our questions are seemingly about "things we should already know." Although we may understand the assumptions of a company, that does not mean we understand why those assumptions exist. We need the freedom to ask "Why" 5 times.

So how do we get the opportunity to ask "Why" 5 times within the stakeholder interviews?
.    Send out advanced questionnaires before stakeholder interviews with some basic, short questions. Even if these questionnaires are answered by junior level people, the responses to these questions can guide the short amount of time we have with high-level executives. We can push past superficial questions and have time to really dig deep into issues that are messy.
.    Always ask "Can I contact you again with any additional question I might have?" at the end of any stakeholder interview to allow yourself that freedom to ask "why" again.
.    Learn to ask the same question with different words. During the interview, if you do not feel like you are getting the right information, try asking your question with different vocabulary.

Although stakeholder interviews present unique challenges, stay strong with your user research principles and keep asking "why".