The 4 Magic Questions To Ask Before You Design Anything

Magic Want

I’ll go so far as to say that if you don’t know the answers to these four questions before you design, then your design will be, at best, mediocre, and possibly a disaster.

Designing anything — websites, software, apps, TV ads, physical spaces, documents – is tough. It takes art and science. Most design principles don’t work in all situations. Designers end up saying “it depends” a lot.

But these four magic questions ALWAYS apply. I ask these questions of my clients every time I design a product, or evaluate a product. Interestingly, although these are basic questions and not really hard to ask, it’s often the case that my clients don’t know or aren’t sure, or aren’t in agreement on the answers.

Here are the 4 magic questions:

1. Who is the target audience? This thing you are designing — who is it that is most often  going to use it? Who is it that you really want to use it? Everyone thinks they know who the target audience is until you ask the question. Then you and everyone else find out that the team doesn’t agree on the target audience. If you don’t know who you are designing for, then what is it you are designing?

2. What does the target audience want to do? Recently I want to the Healthcare.gov website. This is the website you go to get sign up for healthcare insurance in the USA. I had two basic things I wanted to do at the website:

a) My family has been getting health insurance through my husband’s employer, but they’ve announced that they are no longer going to provide insurance, and that everyone will have to go to the “exchanges” and purchase their own insurance. So one of the things that I wanted to do at Healthcare.gov was see what my options might be for insurance, and what it was likely to cost.  You can’t do that at the website. You can find out if you are eligible, based on income, for subsidies. You can read about what to do to “get ready” so that you can apply on November 15 when applications open up. But you can’t input a few basic pieces of data and get an estimate of cost or see what types of policies are available.

b) I have my own business, so the other option I am considering is offering health insurance to my employees. I am wondering if that would be a good option, and then I’d be covered, right? Would it cover my family too? These are the questions I had about employers buying insurance through the “exchange”.  Guess what. You can’t get information on employer plans at the website either. Or if it’s there it’s really well hidden!

Maybe I’m just an outlier. Maybe there aren’t very many people who want to do these two tasks at the Healthcare.gov website. It’s possible. Maybe I’m not the target audience. If we asked the Healthcare.gov design team what the target audience wants to do at the website I wonder what would they say?

3. What does the product owner want the target audience to do? This is not always the same as what the target audience wants to do. I may want to use the pharmacy app to see if there are drug interactions for prescription medication and the pharmacy company may want me to notice the store specials and come into the store. I may want to look up information on climate change and the website owner whose site I go to may want me to sign up for the newsletter. I may want to communicate with my friends and the product owner may want me to sign up for a premium account.

Some designers get stuck on taking only the target audience’s point of view.  You need both. It’s ok for the product owner to want the product to be used in a certain way; to want the target audience to take a certain action. After all, they are committing a lot of money and resources to building this product. And it’s likely for a reason other than or in addition to, fulfilling the target audience’s desires and wishes.  There’s likely to be a business/organization goal too. Does the design team know what that is? If they don’t, how can they be sure to design to match the business/organization goal as well as do what the target audience is hoping for?

4. What is the target action at this particular point? At every point, at every interaction moment, on every page, on every screen,  there is a target action that you want the target audience to take. Does the designer know what that target action is? If not, then how does the designer know what to design? Is the goal to have the target audience click on the Add To Cart button? Is it to share information with a friend? Is it to fill out a form and press the  “Sign Me Up” button? Is it to play a video? Is it to click for more information? Is it to pick up a product to try out in the store? If you want people to take a specific action then you have to design with that action in mind. If there is no action in mind then what is the designer doing?

When clients bring me in I always ask these four magic questions, and I’m often surprised how often the answers aren’t clear, or the team doesn’t agree, or no one has really thought about it.

Ask the 4 magic questions. Know the answers. And then your designers can design or re-design a GREAT product!

What do you think? Do you ask/answer these 4 questions before design? Do you find that your team/stakeholders/clients know the answers when you do? Are there are questions that you consider the “magic” critical questions to ask and answer?

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5 Replies to “The 4 Magic Questions To Ask Before You Design Anything”

  1. I ask

    Who is the intended audience?
    Why are you designing this?
    Why will someone want your product?
    What is the unmet need this product will answer?
    When does it need to be released?
    Where will it be used? What is the context of use?
    How much is your budget?

  2. These are great questions to get the conversation started. By the way I noticed a typo, “Does the designer now what that target action is?” Thanks again.

  3. Most of my clients are small hospitality businesses that have never considered these issues. They expected to ‘build it, and they will come.’

    The problem is that web design clients seem to expect designers to play an additional role as ‘business consultant’. Client wants a web site done, Designer stands at-the-ready to do a design; both stare at each other and say “OK, what should this web site thing say?” “What pages do we need?”. Blink, blink. So I sometimes see pretty web sites that say little and sell less.

    Clients need to bring content leadership to the table. Unfortunately they’re not always equipped, so asking 4 key questions is a great framework for having a constructive design planning session. We need to walk them through it if we care to create a product that makes a difference in their business success.

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