Design by inquiry: Can this be a question?

I recently started a new job with new brilliant, experienced colleagues, and it’s been difficult to make helpful contributions while I’m still learning about the problems we’re working on. Often when I propose a solution it turns out to be already considered and rejected, hopelessly na├»ve, or entirely misguided. And when asked for my opinion on the ideas of others, I sometimes freeze up and stammer out something noncommittal.

I’ve found that the most useful technique is to constantly ask myself, “Can this be a question?” Specifically, I take whatever proposal I was about to make, and turn it into a question for others.

For instance, if I think we should change a design element from blue to green, I might ask “How did we decide on blue for this?” or “How well is blue working here?” If that doesn’t lead anywhere, I could continue by asking “What are the goals of the color choices?” followed by “Would any other colors do that even better?”. Even if we don’t end up making it green, we’re likely to end up with some improvement, and I’m certain to learn something along the way.

Asking questions like this–something I call “design by inquiry”–has several benefits:

  1. It encourages others to share their thoughts and ideas, and puts them in a creative mode rather than a critical one. Often when people hear a strongly-presented idea they feel responsible for pointing out its flaws rather than building constructively on it. And design always benefits from more diverse perspectives.

  2. It gives the people with the most context–they’re asking the question, after all–the opportunity to answer it themselves. If an engineer comes to me with a problem, they’ve already started thinking about it. I’d like to hear what they’ve considered already, and what they feel might be best now.

  3. It can open up an overly-constrained problem to new opportunities. More often than not, the difficulty in design comes from solving the wrong problem, and restating the question gives everyone a chance to reframe the problem and make sure you’re still looking in the right direction.

In several ways, this is similar to the Socratic method, which is often employed in order to discredit a hypothesis or proposal, and sometimes characterized as “acting dumb”. However, design by inquiry comes from a place of open creativity and “actually being dumb”–as designers always are when starting a new project.

One of my mantras is “be the dumbest person in the room”–to make sure I’m always learning–and that means asking a lot of questions!