• Jay Liu
  1. Ask Participants “What”, Not “Why”
  2. Make Ideas Visual
  3. Sketch on Paper Before Going Digital
  4. Iterate, but Don't Waste Iterations
  5. Updates

Habits of Highly Effective Interaction Designers

Of all my thoughts on how to design interactions, here are the ones that have resurfaced most persistently.

September 20, 2018

Ask Participants “What”, Not “Why”

Even though we as user researchers want to know the why behind a user’s goal or task, the path to get there may not actually be to literally ask “Why”.

I initially came across this idea when reading a book called Find Your Why by Simon Sinek, where the author proposes a discovery process that is very similar to that of a user researcher: to elicit feedback from key individuals. In addition to including the mechanics, they offer some guidelines of what to do and what not to do. Interestingly, one of the guidelines when conducting interviews was to ask “What”, rather than "Why"; and, they reasoned that this unlocks the part of the verbal brain that can actually articulate the answer, rather than asking the emotional part of the brain.

Until I find a better example (The book provides a better one, but I cannot think of it right now), here is an example I came up with to illustrate the difference:

  • Question 1: Why do you love me?
  • Question 2: What do you love about me?

You’ll see that these are very similar, but whereas the first one will lead to awkward silence (in trying to answer a tricky question with conviction), the other one is set up to lead to a more ready and useful answer.

The following article  also discusses this, but coming from a clinical psychology approach. The “What” form of the question can help with emotion labeling and “keeps us open to discovering new information”.

Make Ideas Visual

Ideas can be represented verbally, visually, or numerically. When communicating with others on the team, choosing to make it visual automatically makes it concrete. In turn, this will make ideas easier to evaluate. While easy enough for someone with a keyboard to input, the text will readily become too abstract to communicate clearly to the audience, who will gloss over it, or people may read the same content and perceive the same text very differently. Visual representations show relationships clearly, make gaps in knowledge readily apparent. Even the structure of a table can help. Maybe it’s making things into a bulleted list, just so that an underlying structure becomes visible.

Note that this is not to cheapen the honorable craft of good writing. It’s just that a keyboard and enables poor, easily dismissed writing.

(Ironically, I’m typing this article using plain text, and I don’t necessarily know how to make this article visual easily. Current ideas of doing so require software tools and processes I haven’t yet defined. It certainly requires me to leave this text editor. This goes to highlight that it’s difficult to do, even for this author, but I do think it’s a habit that should be adopted, and made automatic, nonetheless. Meanwhile, I’ll keep thinking of ways to make this site more visual!)

Sketch on Paper Before Going Digital

I don’t know if this is solely based on personal preference. Still, I’ve found that the outcome of taking time to sketch things out can reveal additional opportunities for improving the design—more so than solely through digital input alone. I recommend sketching or writing by hand despite me being a digital-input freak. I have spent thousands of USD customizing and programming the keyboard and mouse combination I’m using to type up this article now. That’s not even counting the money spent on previously wielded input devices, like trackball mice, pen tablets, etc.)

Making it into a habit suggests that we reach for paper and pen, no matter the situation. Even if your source information comes from a digital form, draw it out on paper first, and digitize it again. It often takes work, but the quality will be better.

Sketch to think more freely

The digital format makes it all too easy to fiddle around with the digitization tool (alignment, fonts and font sizes, colors, borders, styles, etc.) in a way that robs us of focus on the concepts. On the other hand, sketching forces you to move forward with getting more thoughts down and freely rapidly. It also makes things easily visual, as per the previous habit.

Sketch to invite participation

Drawing things on paper or a board also levels the playing field for others who may be able to provide feedback, who would be able to grab the pen and start building upon your ideas. They won’t need to know how to use or become accustomed to your fancy digital tool.

Iterate, but Don’t Waste Iterations

The idea and benefits of iterating ("fail/learn fast, fail/learn often") are widely accepted, so I won’t go into detail about that.

What I will recommend is, do not waste iterations. Know when you can skip. Every iteration that you can successfully skip saves everyone time and patience. For example, you don’t need to re-validate Nielson Norman’s “10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design” , so don’t put a design in front of someone without making sure that it doesn’t already violate said heuristics. Push the boundary of what you already know to be true before inviting additional feedback.

Just as it’s an interaction designer’s job to help prevent developers from building the wrong thing, it’s also our job as researchers to prevent users from repeating back to us things that we already know.

The first iteration of any design will be the crappiest, and therefore is most likely to contain mistakes that you already know. Before shipping out that first iteration, perhaps prepare and run through a checklist of the ideals and criteria the first design iteration must have before pushing that out the door—including the 10 Usability Heuristics.


Jan 9, 2019 Erika Hall’s masterful article challenges us to separate research questions from interview questions , in a very similar vein as “asking What, not Why”.

Jay Liu
Written by Jay Liu, experience designer.
© 2023, Jay Liu