Asking the obvious: "I want cartoony…"

As a software consultant, I sometimes have interesting experiences. I have seen good software, bad software and even software that should not be working based on its current state. Consultants are often brought in to be the “expert” of any given matter. Are consultants really that smart? If you ask me I would say yes but I am a bit partial. The reality is that consultants are perceived to be smarter because we are given the opportunity to exercise the correct way to ask questions. In this post, I would like to illustrate techniques that could result in receiving information better due to the effectiveness of asking questions properly.

I recently had an opportunity to work on a relatively new project for one of our clients. We came on the project to assist with the architecture and user experience of the client’s application. What I witnessed spoke volumes to me when the UX consultant was told that they wanted their UI to be “cartoony”. The meeting continued on for at least an hour then the UX consultant asked “what is cartoony”. There was a long pause and the response to the consultant was, “you know, cartoony”. There was another long pause and the consultant continued to look perplexed then the client stated, “you know, no one has ever asked me that question”. The client proceeded to explain his definition of cartoony and it was nothing like his employees envisioned or described to us.
So, why was the obvious never asked? Were they embarrassed? Was there a previous attempt to explain this and his employees still had no idea of the expectation and did not to continue to probe? Or were they over thinking what they were being asked?

I decided to take a deeper look at the art of asking questions and came across a good book titled “The Art of Asking: Ask Better Questions, Get Better Answers” by T. J. Fadem. One thing that stood out to me was the author’s rules for asking questions. The author called these rules the “Ten Basic Rules for Asking Questions” which are:
1. Be direct
2. Make eye contact
3. Use plain language
4. Use simple sentence structure
5. Be brief
6. Maintain focus on the subject at hand
7. Make certain the purpose of the question is clear
8. The question must be appropriate for the situation and the person
9. The manner of asking should reflect the intent
10. Know what to do with the answer

With this said, are consultants smarter or do we have the luxury to ask any question because we are the outsiders? I don’t think consultants are smarter, we just spend a majority of our work day asking questions, therefore we have mastered the skill of asking the obvious.