Answers Are Easy, Questions Are Hard

June 6, 2007

Questions Aza Raskin has had a lifelong quest to build the perfect paper airplane (can’t say I share his enthusiasm, but anyways…). In his latest post on the Humanized Weblog, he uses this example to talk about iterative design. He makes an interesting point:

Coming up with a solution is often the most straightforward part of the design process. That isn’t to say that creating the solution is easy, or doesn’t require a deep knowledge and honed skill set. It’s just to say that when you have a set of requirements and a well defined problem, you know where you stand and where you have to get to. It’s mostly straightforward. Much harder is the implicit problem of figuring out exactly what the problem is in the first place. If the problem is vague or ill-defined, the design solution will be too.

This is something I’ve always believed: that the hard part is asking the right question. And to digress quite a bit, I think this is a problem that a lot of people have, myself included. In school we are basically handed the problems: “learn this”, “write an essay about that”, etc. We are almost never encouraged to seek out new problems, or even to think creatively about different kinds of answers.

Something I’ve seen in a lot of my friends is that when we finally graduate from university, we don’t know what to do. We are used to being handed narrowly-defined problems, like “finish high school”, “choose a university”, and even “choose a program”. Those last two sound like they are actually difficult, but think about it — all you are doing is picking an item out of a list. It couldn’t get much easier. When we get out into the “real world”, all of a sudden, the questions are much more vague. To do well, you need to practice the same sort of iterative design that Aza talks about: you need to improve both the design and the problem you are trying to solve.

And this is something I’ve actively been trying to do with my research interests. Actually, that’s one of the main reasons I started this blog: to help me sort out the problems in HCI that I am trying to solve. Answers are easy; the hard part is asking the right questions.

(Photo by ! * Krystian`s PHOTOSynthesis * ! on Flickr)