The Five Whys: A Simple Yet Powerful Research Tool

The Five Whys is a questioning technique to reach the root cause of an issue.

The Five Whys is a questioning technique to reach the root cause of a problem and extract valuable insights. As a researcher or product manager, you can use this technique in your qualitative interviews, such as moderated, unmoderated and contextual inquiries. The Five Whys is also great for both internal interviews such as stakeholder interviews. 

This tool creates empathy and allows you to understand your users behaviors, needs, emotions and pain points.

The Five Whys methodology was created by the founder of Toyota to dig into the root cause of a problem and determine how to stop the issue from recurring at a much deeper level.

Steps to Conducting the Five Whys technique

Step 1: Ask a broad question about your participant’s habits or behaviors

Step 2: In response to their answer, ask a “why” question

Step 3: Allow the participant to respond to your first “why” question, then repeat this 5 times

You can repeat this more or less than 5 times depending on quickly you reach the underlying source. However, by asking why 5 times, the conversation may unfold in unexpected ways. 

An Example: Using the Five Whys to Extract Powerful Information

Problem: Our invoice went out late so we didn’t receive payment, now we can’t pay our bills.

Question 1: Why was it late?

Answer 1: We forgot to send it out on the 1st.

Question 2: Why did you forget to send it out?

Answer 2: Because I was on vacation until Monday the 2nd.

Question 3: Why didn’t you send it on Monday the 2nd?

Answer 3: Because my boss couldn’t approve it.

Question 4: Why couldn’t he or she approve it?

Answer 4: Because he or she was traveling.

Question 5: Why wasn’t there communication about traveling and vacations?

Answer 5: We’ve never had a process for ensuring the invoice gets out when members of the team are traveling so we didn’t know what to do.

Solution: There needs to be a defined process for travel and vacation which outlines when and how the team is informed. Also, people need to assign a proxy to ensure responsibilities are handled on time.

Advantages of the Five Whys

The Five Whys allows you to get to the root of the issue. By constantly questioning your subject, you’ll dig deeper than you would with typical questioning methods. Also, this method is easy to implement since you’re asking simple why questions.

Most importantly, you can design a solution for the root problem and not the surface level issue

Limitations of the Five Whys

At times, the Five Whys can feel invasive. When you’re constantly asking “why” it might feel like you’re being accusatory or downright annoying. In order to combat this, let participants know this is a tool that you are using to get to the root problem and are not trying to be invasive people. If they can understand how this helps the team, they will be open to sharing their honest answers when you ask “why”.

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