User interviews — Why is it so hard to ask why 5 times? Why, why, why, why, why?

user stories User research user interviewing

Illustration: User interview setting, interviewer asking the user why five times.In a user interview you are looking for user stories. To get to drill down to the root of a problem or underlying reasons for doing tasks, it is often suggested that you repeat asking why 5 times. As this Wikipedia article states, the “5” / “five” in the name derives from an anecdotal observation on the number of iterations needed to resolve the problem.

The problem I am having when doing user interviews is that I am not doing this often enough. So, now I’ll interview myself, using the 5 whys to figure out the core of my problem.

Illustration: Me interviewing myself using the five why's.1st — Why is it so hard to ask “why” 5 times during a user interview?

Because I’m not curious enough?

2nd — But is that true? Why are you not curious enough?

Nah, I’m curious enough. Maybe because it’s awkward to ask why so many times?

3rd — So, why is it awkward?

You have kind of gotten the answer, so asking again seems a bit pushy.

4th — Is that the only reason why?

(Yes I’m cheating here to get the word “why” in the sentence, but it’s still a follow up question)

Maybe not. Also because I’m doing the interview on my own without a note taker? Nah, I forget to do this when I have a note taker too.

5th — So why then?

Because I think too quickly I know the root cause of the problem from the answers I get and hence I think I know the real answer? YES! This must be it.

Nice! How then can you solve it?

Illustration: Two post-its with memo to self for a user interview setting.

  • Prepare for doing this in the user interview. Have it on a post-it as a really visible reminder.
  • Go through the times I remembered and see all the good stuff I got out of it.
  • For each answer I have gotten, try to formulate another why-question based on the answer.
  • Force myself to do this on at least some questions during a user interview.

Previous blog posts on user interviewing

User interviewing - How and why?


What to ask in a user interview?