The solution to bad questions is to ask better questions, not to ask no questions.

technology Sunday November 29, 2020

I’ve often heard Henry Ford quoted as saying:

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Despite the fact that he probably didn’t actually say that, it does neatly encapsulate a certain approach to product development. And it’s one that the modern technology industry loves to lionize.

There’s a genre of mythologized product development whereby wholly unique and novel products spring, fully-formed, Athena-like, from the foreheads of Zeusian industrialists like Jobs, or Musk, or Bezos. This act of creation requires no input from customers. Indeed, the myths constructed about the iconic products associated with these industrialists often gloss over or outright ignore the work of their hundreds of thousands of employees, not to mention long years of iteration along with legions of early-adopter customers.

Ford’s other major area of contribution to public discourse was, of course, being a big ol’ Nazi, just writing so much Nazi stuff that he was one of Hitler’s heroes.1

This could be a coincidence, of course; lots of prominent thinkers in the past were absolutely hideous racists, anti-semites, slave owners and worse; these terrible ideas were often products of the time, and the people who held them sometimes nevertheless had other ideas worth examining.

But I think that this sentiment reflects a wider underlying infatuation with authoritarian ideology. At its core, the idea is that the uniquely gifted engineer is just better than their users, fundamentally smarter, more able to discern their true needs, more aware of the capabilities of the technology that we alone are familiar with. Why ask the little people, they can’t possibly know what they really need.

While we may blithely quote this sort of thing, when you look at the nuts and bolts of the technology industry, the actual practice of the industry has matured past it. Focus groups and user research are now cornerstones of interaction design. We know that it’s pure hubris to think that we can predict the way that users react with; you can’t just wing it.

But, I hadn’t heard a similarly pithy encapsulation of an empathetic approach that keeps the user in the loop and doesn’t condescend to them, until today. The quote came up, and my good friend Tristan Seligmann responded with this:

If you ask your users questions that they don’t have the skills to answer — like “how can we improve your horse?” — they will give you bad answers; but the solution to this is to ask better questions, not to ask no questions.

Tristan Seligmann

That, fundamentally, is the work-product of a really good engineer. Not faster horses or faster cars:

Better questions.

  1. Pro tip: don’t base your design ethos on Nazi ideas.