If you’re designing a new website, or undertaking any marketing initiative, for that matter, taking the time to ask one simple question may mean the difference between success and failure.

The question…in question?

Why? As in, “why do you want a new website?” or “why is that feature important to you?”

Three-year-olds can’t stop asking ‘why?’ because their instincts tell them that the more they ask, the more they know; and the more they know, the more they’ll be able to accomplish. And isn’t that what we’re all trying to do?

Once we’re all grown up, we become too “sophisticated” for such an elementary query. We’re masters of needless complexity, often more concerned with showing everyone just how sophisticated we are – and wondering if they’re buying it – that we forget the one simple question that’s guaranteed to make us smarter.

The WHY-Bomb

One of the pleasures of discussing new projects with clients comes from their reaction the first time I drop the “why-bomb.”

It’s most effective after someone has finished explaining a set of desired features or tactics in great detail. I’ll give it a good three-count, and then” “why?” – which is almost always followed by another three count – this time on the part of the intended respondent, and not quite as premeditated as mine – and then: “why…what?”

I should probably warn you at this point that this should not be attempted with anyone you don’t know well…or someone you do know well that doesn’t have a sense of humor – especially if you’re not the only people in the room. It’s such an uncommon question – especially in a professional setting – that it can be perceived as a joke – or even insolent – so, do not try this on your boss…unless your boss is cool.

But, beyond my propensity for puckish behavior, there is a serious point to be made here.

Beauty in Simplicity

The fact that such a simple, albeit direct, question can throw otherwise very intelligent people off their game speaks volumes about how much of our time we spend buried in the minutiae, staring at trees, oblivious to the forest.

How do I know?

Because it’s not uncommon for the person being asked to have difficulty finding an answer.

Let me give you an example:

Client: “I think our logo should be bigger.”

Me: “Why?”

Client: “?”

OK, that’s too easy. There is NEVER a good reason to make the logo bigger, amiright?!

All kidding aside, this type of myopia is usually the domain of more complicated stuff – or at least stuff that seems complicated.

See, in my experience, the extent to which common sense is employed in planning or executing an undertaking is inversely proportionate to the complexity of that undertaking.

…no idea if it’s ever been said before, but if it hasn’t, let’s call it Delahoussaye’s Principle™

Picture the human mind as a bookshelf filled from end-to-end with no sides or bookends. The books on the shelf are arranged by complexity with “Pat the Bunny” on the far left, an astrophysics text on the far right. What happens when you add “Quantum Mechanics for Dummies” on the on the right?

Good ‘ol Pat the Bunny bites the dust (bunny).

While building websites isn’t quite astrophysics, it’s a relatively technical – and to many clients, unfamiliar – undertaking, so the less-experienced will be adding at least a “National Geographic” size book over on the right, and often the first book to go is “The Book of Why?” It’s a shame because it really comes in handy when you’re learning something new.

Keep Calm and Ask Why

There’s also the anxiety that new technology and processes tend to induce, which, in it’s more severe manifestations can have folks beating the hell out of the poor horse they hitched up behind the cart.

In less vivid (and frightening) terms, anxiety about the technology tends to cause people to over-focus on technology, features, and functionality to the exclusion of sound deemphasize marketing fundamentals.

Early signs of this phenomenon include discussions that begin with a list of features and functionality, instead of a goal. When this happens, the best way to dial it back is – you guessed it, to ask “why” – or, the more gentle, “can you tell me what you’re hoping to achieve by building X, Y, and Z?”

Asking “why” refocuses the conversation on the client’s goals and intentions, which, of course; we need to understand in order to deliver on them. After all, isn’t that what we, as an agency, are here for?

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