The importance of understanding ‘why’

The importance of thinking about ‘why’ in addition to ‘how’ and ‘what’ has been coming up a lot for me over the last couple of months, most recently in this fabulous quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Without ambition one starts nothing. Without work one finishes nothing. The prize will not be sent to you. You have to win it. The man who knows how will always have a job. The man who also knows why will always be his boss. As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.

This is brilliant on many levels, but I especially love the brutal simplicity of ‘the man who knows why will always be his boss’. As we know, no plan survives contact with the enemy, and understanding ‘why’ allows us to adjust methods and goals in response to market feedback and other information. If we don’t understand ‘why’ then we are reduced to cycling through methods and tactics in the hope that one of them will work.

In today’s data rich world we know so much about what our customers are doing it can be easy to forget to ask why they are doing it. This is the point that UX consultant Whitney Hess makes in her post Why guess? A familiar screenplay in which she describes a scene she sees played out regularly where clients make inferences from data about customer behaviour without understanding the motivations behind that behaviour. In summary, the client sees from the data that one of their features is very popular and decides to move to an earlier point in the user experience so it will get used more. The logic here is clear, but as Whitney points out the idea that this change will go well rests on three assumptions 1)everyone can benefit from the feature, 2) those who aren’t using it must not be seeing it, and 3) the feature will still be valuable earlier in the process. Talking to some customers to understand why they are or are not using the feature would remove the need to make assumptions. (It is possible to simply run an A/B test to see whether the change improves your metrics, but even then understanding why customers behave as they do should result in smarter experiments and faster progress.)

If you are into UX then Whitney’s blog is worth diving into. It was also her who put me onto the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote above.

Another area where understanding the ‘why’ is important is in explaining what a company is about and building brand. That’s a whole other post, but in summary telling the world why the company exists can be much more inspiring and memorable than saying what it does. The same is true when we tell our own personal stories as well.