Reframing the question



How often do you exercise? Current WHO guidelines recommend approximately 2,5 hours per week and most responses to this question are likely to fall in line with that – whether or not it’s true. The same kind of “meeting expectations” responses will be given to questions about how much fruit and veg you eat, or how many units of alcohol you drink per week.


The fact that people tend to answer as they think they should, rather than describing how they actually behave, poses a problem for human-centred designers. How can we understand the needs and behaviours of those with whom we’re working if we can’t effectively learn about their experiences ?


One answer to this is by careful and mindful observation, but that is for another post. For now, I want to focus on how we can ask better questions in order to find solutions to users’ problems. This is the method of ‘re-framing’, a sometimes difficult and quite conceptual element to Design Thinking yet, when achieved, can be infinitely rewarding and provide us with vital insights.


Back to the first question. We want to understand users’ exercise habits, perhaps in order to develop a project building outdoor community gyms. What is a better way of framing this question in order to gain real insight?


The first thing to do is to open out the question. Instead of starting with “when” or “how often” or “why” (we are rarely able to articulate why we do something) try starting with “tell me”. “Tell me about the last time you exercised” is far more open and will lead  to far richer answers. Follow- up questions can then be asked which give more information about where and how often someone exercises, but the initial question that we ask when trying to establish user needs should provide the respondent with space. The direction they choose to go with their answer will also inform your research.


Tina Seelig, Author of Insight Out: Get Ideas Out Of Your Head And Into The World greatly emphasises the importance of reframing. She writes that if we ask “how should we plan a birthday party for David?” we have a totally different set of answers than to the re-framed question “how can we make David’s day memorable?” Too often we bake our answers into the questions – in this case, assuming a birthday party is the answer – and, as a result, are likely to miss a whole load of potential solutions.


By reframing the question we build empathy into the fabric of our work. Asking more open questions that give respondents space to answer is key to understanding user journeys and to conducting effective research.


Do you have any examples of questions that have been reframed? Please share in the comments below.


Further reading: check out this great interview with Rob Fitzpatrick where he gives a lot of examples of reframing questions


Take away: divide a group of people in half. Ask one half to “design a better alarm clock” and ask the other half to “design a better waking up experience”. Don’t let each group know what the other is doing! Give everyone 4 minutes to draw 4 ideas, then have them share these with their team. Next, ask the teams to synthesise their ideas, giving them 1 minute to each draw 1 idea – this can be a completely new idea, or a combination of their team’s drawings. When the time is up, invite both groups to share their ideas with the whole group. Those with the narrow brief about designing an alarm clock will have all designed, surprise surprise…alarm clocks! And the other group? Who knows how many weird and wonderful ideas they will have developed, thanks to their open and reframed brief!