The heart of asking questions

Kivilcim Gunay | 06/28/2023

A few weeks ago, I video-called my mom before the workday got a hold of me. She told me that the day prior, she had a lot of ups and downs in a conversation with an old friend. Her story had many twists, and it was only second nature for me to pepper her with follow-up questions.

“Why do you think your friend got upset?” I asked.

She acted like she didn’t hear me, which made me chuckle. I tried again, reframing my question.

“What do you think your friend meant by that snarky comment?”

My mother’s face turned serious. “You ask too many questions … do you ask this many questions at work, too?”

“Yes, mom. I literally ask questions for a living.”

Embracing curiosity

Ever since I was a child, I was told I asked “too many questions.” I did so to learn more, challenge assumptions, confirm my understanding and maybe sometimes playfully annoy my parents. I found myself at home as a researcher, asking carefully crafted questions to uncover the underlying motivations behind others’ actions.

I asked questions in various settings: during a college internship in a leading US hospital’s psychiatry unit, I conducted research supporting a longitudinal study with patients experiencing eating disorders. Realizing my desire to work in a creative setting, I later pursued my interest in human behavior in the PR/advertising world. I took on roles in market research to learn how consumers’ attitudes and perceptions shape their shopping behavior. Finally, for the past several years I have been working as a user experience researcher at EY. While the end goals and methodologies varied in each of my professional roles, what remained consistent was the importance of asking questions to expand my understanding of human behavior — and then leveraging the insights I gained to make a positive impact on others’ lives.

Questions are powerful tools

One of the ways I help solve problems in my current position is by asking questions to different stakeholder groups and making sense of their responses for my clients. My queries take several forms, depending on the audience and the research goal; for instance, there are interviews with internal client audiences to gather business requirements, as well as interviews with end users to figure out the best digital experience to meet their needs.

Regardless of their form, questions are tools that get people to think through things they may not have consciously considered before. This can lead to breakthroughs, such as seeing things from a new angle or challenging accepted statements, rules or processes. The right questions can result in a new understanding, or validating an assumption, or rebuking a hypothesis. They can also lead to more questions for future research opportunities.

User interviews: a way to create empathy

By asking questions to learn about users’ experiences with products and trying to see things from their point of view, the goal is to learn about users’ needs and challenges. The user-interview method is one way we can get closer to empathizing with users to put their needs at the center of the design process. I want my research sessions to be conversational — a safe space for participants to express themselves and share what they truly feel about the concept being tested. I need to make sure I cover the critical questions without going off-track. My questions should not be leading; I am there to capture the participants’ experience and their candid feelings. I must listen to their responses and be ready to ask improvised follow-ups. Additionally, I need to ask questions to confirm my understanding of participants’ responses, leaving no room for assumptions.

Challenges with questions

Not all questions have to be answered. As researchers, we have an assumed authority to ask questions. However, we must not assume that we will get answers just because we get to ask questions. Sometimes people are simply not ready for certain questions — a particular inquiry might seem invasive or cause the participant to lose confidence or otherwise feel uncomfortable. In these situations, people can deflect the question with a question, respond emotionally or simply ignore it. 

The way we ask questions matters. As researchers we have a responsibility to ask questions, but it is our duty to craft questions in a way that will elicit insights. But the user does not have to answer at all, much less answer in the way the researcher expects or wants. The art of asking the right questions in the appropriate way deserves its own article, but at a high level, being compassionate and respectful toward participants and asking relevant questions is a good starting point for user interviews. Well-thought-out questions asked at the right time to the appropriate audience can bring forth candid responses that are essential to a project’s progress. 

No shame in asking questions. Furthermore, as we gather insights — especially at the beginning of an engagement — we ask stakeholders questions to clarify and confirm our understanding. However, this could come across as if we lack knowledge in an area we should be experts in. It’s the job of the researcher to reframe such questions, admit they don’t know what they don’t know, and not back down if they initially get pushback for asking a question. The road to learning is challenging, but the eventual enlightenment is always worth it.

Leading with questions

In a society that has been grading us from an early age based on our answers — and subtracting points when we have the wrong ones — those who wear the researcher hat are brave for asking questions. By doing so, they indicate they don’t yet have the answer, and they acknowledge that what’s known collectively might be inadequate, which can be disconcerting to some.

In asking questions, we pave the way for discovery, which is one of the first steps of challenging the status quo. The right questions that are asked appropriately can identify a gap that has been missed. Vulnerability, a by-product of discovery, has the power to create empathy and understanding among stakeholders that will set the stage for a real change.

We should continue questioning our collective knowledge and take note of what still is true of our beliefs and what calls for amending. Leveraging new data, we have the power and duty to rethink our positions and approaches. Here’s to celebrating the questions that inspired the groundbreaking ideas and creative visions that have transformed our lives.

Illustration by Paije Carbonell