Consultants ask “Why?”

I’m re-reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done book and realizing that many of his ideas about productivity are in common with the design processes and observations of user experience professionals.

In particular, David’s section on “natural planning” emphasizes the trajectory:1. purpose and principles2. outcome vision3. brainstorming4. organizing5. next actions

Points 2-4 correspond fairly well with, say, Bill Buxton’s emphasis on prototyping (“outcome vision”) and the expand-then-narrow design process (“brainstorming” then “organizing”).

And David’s discussion of point 1 (“purpose and principles”) immediately reminded me of Tamara Adlin’s musings on “corporate underpants.” She has been a usability consultant for various companies, and observed that bad user experience often stems directly from confusion and baggage in the ranks of the management. David and Tamara both point out that the primary advantage of hiring a consultant is not special skills or experience but simply the fact that they come from outside the company and can therefore ask the “dumb” question: “why?” Since external consultants have no previous knowledge of the company, they are allowed to ask questions that probe deeply at the organization’s core goals and principles — questions that executives and VPs would never ask because they are too scared to admit they don’t already know. Tamara always claims that by far her biggest contributions as a user experience consultant have nothing to do with usability methods per se, but simply asking “dumb” questions over and over until the various stakeholders finally get on the same page and actually start “pulling in the same direction” as each other.

If you work in an organization, try to ask those deeper questions if the answers are not already clear. Why are we doing this? What is our goal here and what are our values? What will the outcome look like and why is that what we want? My experience has been that people are much more likely to thank me for clarifying the issues than dismissing the question as “dumb.”