The 5 Whys Method


The “5 Whys” approach is one of my favorite research methods to get to the root cause of any issue and solve it. The approach is pretty simple. Just keep asking “why?” until you figure things out, right? Well, simple isn’t always easy.

How To Use The 5 Whys To Figure Out The “Real” Why

Originally the brainchild of Sakichi Toyoda at Toyota Motor Company, this technique was implemented throughout Toyota’s manufacturing facilities as part of their continuous improvement strategy. Like peeling back an onion, each time you ask “Why?” you uncover a deeper level layer.

Here’s a simple example:

1. Why is your phone’s battery dead? – Answer: I forgot to charge it.

2. Why did you forget to charge it? – Answer: My phone charger wasn’t nearby.

3. Why isn’t your phone charger nearby? – Answer: Because I keep it downstairs in the kitchen.

4. Why do you keep it in the kitchen? – Answer – I like to keep it next to my car keys.

5. Why don’t you keep it on your desk nearby? Answer – Because I don’t have a spare charger.

That last “Why?” identifies the root cause, which is the fact that the person doesn’t have a spare phone charger. They should either move the existing charger or get another so the chances of having a dead phone battery are greatly reduced.

How To Apply 5 Whys In UX Research

As part of your overall UX Process, identifying the root cause of a problem early on has multiple benefits. For one thing, surfacing the issue before designing it into a feature will likely save time, money, and numerous headaches. Secondly, it will help your team collaborate better together. Here’s how:

  • Get everyone on your team in the same room (or virtual room if you’re on a distributed team).
  • Assign one person to be the group facilitator
  • Clearly define the issue together and confirm everyone is in agreement.
  • Try to get the problem focused as tightly as possible – in fact smaller is better.
  • Ask the 5 why’s and capture the answers on a white board or other note-taking system.

As you go along, you may discover that working through small issues often uncovers larger systemic problems that might otherwise go unnoticed.

For User and Stakeholder Interviews: Ask Why But Don’t Be Annoying

When interviewing users and stakeholders, it takes empathy and tact to ask somebody why they do something 5 times without annoying them.

Follow up each “Why” question with simple phrases like “Really? Could you tell me more?”, or “That’s interesting. Please go on”.

Anything you can do to keep the conversation flowing as naturally as possible is best.

Always Be Curious

Genuine curiosity is at the heart of an effective “5 Whys” exploration. You have to really be interested and truly care. Curiosity drives interest, empathy, and ultimately answers. Have you used the “5 Whys” recently? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments.

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