The Wonderland of the 5W’s (and how)

By in Community Stories April 2, 2018

A few weeks ago a handful of us (designers) were asked to collaborate in supplying ideas/content for a seminar that Topcoder was attending. Yet, I couldn’t answer the questions properly…I hit a wall, hard! So I reverted to the 5 W’s or “jumped down the rabbit hole”.

Who uses the 5 W’s?

By definition, English, Dutch and German speaking people. As it is a system based on questions in those languages. The “W” is the abbreviation from the first letter of these words/questions.

Taught as part of the syllabus to most (if not all) North American children at an early age. Most Canadians and Americans have it hard wired into them. Also used by journalists, authors, researchers and law enforcement as one of their primary toolsets.

But, it can be used by anyone, even by designers and developers. It is free, and almost 2000 years old!

What are the 5 W’s?

Who, what, when, where and why.

Primary Usage :

English German Dutch
Who Wer Wie
What Was Wat
When Wann Wanneer
Where Wo Waar
Why Warum Waarom

Other Languages :

English Latin (Origins) French Indonesian
Who Quis Qui Siapa
What Quid Que/Qu’ Apa
When Quando Quand Kapan
Where Ubi Di / Ke mana
Why Quare Porquoi Mengapa

When should we use the 5 W’s

The beginning, middle or end of any project. Or just as a tool to get out of difficulty. The choice is yours. I use it to solve / generate / understand / deconstruct ~ concepts

e.g. ;

  • Who(users) is this for?
  • What(content) do they need to make a decision?
  • When(time) do they need to make a decision?
  • e.t.c

Where can I see examples of this in Design?

Everywhere. Just in different ways. If you didn’t know about the system, as a designer you have most probably been using the system in your own way or your own language. This is just pointing out that there is a actual step by step “system” or “process” involved that you can rely on for help when you need it.

Why are the 5 W’s important?

…Why should I use the 5 W’s?

“Why” is the most powerful question to continuously ask yourself (and others!). Just like a 4 year old when they machine gun the question at their parents before they were told “…because” or “…I don’t know”… The Death of En/Inquiry ( another blog post that)

The “why” of using the system is however totally up to you as a designer/developer/thinking human being. You could use a shoe to hammer in a nail, it does the job just fine. Or, you can use the 5 W’s Hammer designed for the job. Which brings us on to the “How”…

How do I (designer) use the 5 W’s?

This is again up to you. So much is up to you! Your brain is your best tool (best not use it on nails though).

You could shuffle the order around and put the “Why” in the front as a key to the rest of the questions. That is a great start, a causal/sequential string of inquiry.

Or you can use it in role playing…

…how do I roleplay?

Each individual/company/service puts their own importance to the answers generated by the 5 W’s. “What?” doesn’t carry the exact same importance between any two different people. It is never an equal shared “drive” or “urge”. Without getting into pseudo psychology…

One of our primary jobs as designers is to figure out what the most important questions might be and thus what the answers are for any design solution. Be that for specific users/personas or shared between all the users, the average.

Once figured out. Assign them to a hierarchy or order of importance. This is where the role playing comes in.

For example :

I (service recipient) am expecting a package to be delivered:

Importance Service Recipient Service Provider
Most/Highest Who is delivering the product? What is delayed?
High When can I expect delivery? Why is it delayed?
Medium What  is being delivered ? Where is the product now?
Medium/Low Where is this being delivered to? When is the product expected to be delivered?
Low IF > delayed > then > Why is the product delayed? To whom is the product being delivered?

… Just as long as you ask all the questions on the list.

Co-Pilots / Designers

Asking “why?” seems to take a surprising amount of energy. It is just a question, yet we seldom seem to ask it of both ourselves and others. Or just in general. Especially in general.

“The colors are too bland in this design.”

Is a declarative statement, it ends in a full stop.
Essentially a command that expects(demands) an action.

But that can be fixed :

“Why are the colors too bland in this design?”

By making the statement a question, we create :

1) An opening for discussion
2) An opening for evaluation on either side of the question.
3) A connection between the person who asks the question and the person being asked.

So much is gained by adding two words and a question mark!

The 5 W’s : In Conclusion

The options and opportunities available through using the 5 W’s is up to your sitzfleisch (Einstein).

Feed your head.

Grace Wing Slick / Paul Kalkbrenner

“There are naive questions, tedious questions, ill-phrased questions, questions put after inadequate self-criticism. But every question is a cry to understand the world. There is no such thing as a dumb question”

Carl Sagan

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