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Ask, Ask, and Ask Again

Posted on July 07, 2016 by Tyler Corbett

What’s the first thing that happens when you walk into the Emergency Room? An attendant at the front desk asks for your name and your date of birth.

The attendant asks “What brings you into the ER?” Then, “How long has this been occurring?”

It’s such a wave of questions that you hope you have someone there with you to answer for you while you are sick. You take your seat while you wait for someone to see you. A nurse finally calls you back to sit in the triage room, and the wave starts again.

“What’s your name? Your date of birth? What seems to be the problem? And this has been going on for how long?”

Even though you just answered these same questions you oblige and answer as best you can, but that’s not the end. The nurse writes your answers and asks, “What prescriptions are you taking? Do you have any allergies?” The nurse takes your height, weight, temperature, and blood pressure and records those too. You are sent to a room and again you wait. After some time, your doctor enters and, now by rote, you answer the same questions over again.

“What brings you in today? Has this been going on for long?” The doctor takes notes and nods. “What allergies do you have? Are you currently taking any medication?”

Another set of questions follows. Hopefully, at this point, the doctor leaves quickly and confidently to prepare your treatment and begin the healing process.

So what’s the first thing that happens when you walk into the ER? They ask. The attendants ask, and the nurses ask, and the doctors ask. Each time you are asked the same questions, and each time you are asked more questions. Most of the time, when we’re feeling sick, all of these questions are just a chore. You already answered the first time, why can’t they just fix you and you be on your way?

What can seem like an annoyance to a patient in need is actually a tested, tried and true system that ensures the best health care possible through repetition, verification, and progressively building on top of previous information. I like to refer to this process as Positive Redundancy, and every health care system uses it. By adopting this same system and these same principles, User Experience teams can also ensure the best possible experience for their users. While development teams do not work on nearly the same plane of urgency that hospital staffs deal with on a daily basis, it’s helpful to take a look at how those same processes can be adopted to our work. While it may seem like an obvious step in our workflow, asking questions is still something that is either not done frequently enough, or sometimes not even done at all.

When you first meet with a client or user, this process starts. The user should be guided through a similar series of checkpoints with every meeting. Each checkpoint should consist of a series of questions that slowly build off of each other and gradually become more detailed and granular.

“Why are you here today? What is your most urgent need?”

The first checkpoint is a set of broad questions, just like at the front desk. These questions should feel like a “get to know you” session where you learn more about the user directly and can hear what they need help with at a high level. Ask your users what they need.

The second checkpoint begins building on previous knowledge. Ask the same questions again to verify them. This is to make sure their needs haven’t changed, and maybe they can even give you more information that you didn’t receive the first time. Progressively build on this knowledge and dig deeper. Repeat this again in every checkpoint you have with your users. Repeat the questions, validate their info, and constantly pull more information from them. As you go through these steps, save a record of them to refer back to later, just like your hospital does. These records are important to show which questions have been asked before so you can know which questions to add or repeat.

This process will help your team be able to prioritize your users’ needs, and ensure that your team stays focused on the absolute best way to care for those needs. In an ideal world, where your team has all of the time, all of the budget, and all of the star power, this process puts an emphasis on listening. Whether it’s through open discussions, empathy mapping, workshops, personas or any other tool in your team’s kit, just make sure you are constantly repeating this process. Gather all of the information you possibly can before you act.

The answers you glean from this process will make your job easier and the experiences you provide that much more beneficial for your users. Remember that they are your patients, and that we are here to help them find solutions to their needs. So the moment you engage with your users, make sure the first thing that happens is that you ask, ask, and ask again.