People often use linguistic tics when put on the spot with tough questions. President Obama frequently starts responses to tricky questions with “look” or “listen” before launching into his answer.
Another common verbal tic often heard in media interviews is “That’s a great question”. It’s a crutch to either buy some time while thinking of an answer or to deflect the question itself; using the deflection as a bridge to provide their answer.
So when is a great question truly a great question?
In a recent edition of the Freakonomics Radio podcast, the renowned Charlie Rose, host of the Charlie Rose Show, was asked by Steven Dubner, the host of the podcast, about the craft of question making. Here’s an excerpt from that segment:
DUBNER: It strikes me that you’re someone who works hard to ask the kind of questions that people think are really good questions, that are really good questions.
ROSE: I do, I mean, it would be clearly naïve of me to say that I don’t think about the craft of the question. I think about that a lot. How to ask the question, what I expect to get from the question. And so how the question is perceived makes a difference to me. I structure the question hoping to get the best possible response. I used to make longer questions. With some assumption that I had to explain the question. I spend more time now simplifying the question.
DUBNER: Take us a little further into that. When you say that you structure the question hoping to get the best possible response, I guess what I want to know from you is, how do you know what the best possible response is? In other words, are you trying to, like a prosecutor, get the answer to a question that you sort of know already?
ROSE: … it’s not, for me, that I want them to say something that I think they’ve said before and I want them to repeat it. So, I’m not asking questions to have someone tell me what I want them to say or to tell me something that they’ve already said before. What I want them to do is surprise me with an answer. To go deeper, wider, more interesting than they have before. And there is a kind of moment in which you try to say something that is…that just captures the moment and makes the person be caught up in the question rather than simply, you know, repeating something that they’ve said a thousand times before.
Charlie Rose is widely recognized as an interviewer par excellence, and for good reason. Because he speaks from a place of genuine curiosity and comes to the table well-informed, he often gets people to open up in ways they ordinarily would not. He does this by paying enormous attention to crafting his questions, resulting in distinctively engaging and enlightening conversations.
Great design also often results from well-crafted questions.
For Apple, the question was not ‘How do we make a better music player?’. It was ‘How do we design a better music experience?’. A different question. A remarkably different answer – the iPod and iTunes.
For Uber, it wasn’t ‘How can we improve taxi service?’ It was ‘How can we reinvent transportation for the modern age?’ The Uber car service, as we know it now, is just the tip of the iceberg of the possibilities to come from this company.
For decades, Coca-Cola would change their packaging design frequently at enormous cost until someone asked some really profound questions that led to a historic change. The new design system not only reenergized the icon, but it also gave brand back the dignity and status it deserved – and with cost benefits too.
The design of anything – strategy, cities, services or things – should always begin with good questions. Profound questions. And it is the truly great questions that lead to good answers in the form of great design.
So the takeaway is: designers, pay attention to the craft of the question before paying attention to the craft of the answer.