How Asking the Right Questions is More Important than the Solution

How can asking a question be more important than the much-needed solution? Simply put, asking the wrong questions will never find you the right solution. So investing in the question might bring a much faster and easier yield of solutions.

For example, as a city dweller, I am more frequently a pedestrian and cyclist than a motorist. I am often confronted with unpleasant encounters with vehicles that make me feel unsafe — and it usually has to do with crossing at intersections where I have to dart across between right-turning cars. Wanting to find a solution to these encounters, my first reflex goes to “how could I convince people driving cars to be more aware of pedestrians and cyclists?”

But the thing is, we all know we should be aware of pedestrians when we’re driving. But for whatever reason, we’re not always paying acute attention to everything when we’re behind the wheel. Frankly, there’s a lot to take in. As a person wanting to change that behavior, I can campaign away and hold my breath and stomp my feet until everyone behaves better when driving because “we should.” But that’s just not going to happen.

Nick Falbo, a Portland-based urban planner, has an elegant solution to my problem. But his solution to my problem came from a different question. Instead of answering the question “how could I convince people driving cars to be more aware of pedestrians and cyclists?” he answered the question “how can I make pedestrians and cyclists easier to see in intersections?”

You’ll see in this video below that instead of a campaign about driver awareness, he chose to create physical barriers that force cars to meet pedestrians and cyclists at right angles — the most highly visible angle — which solves the visibility problem and the paying attention problem. It’s hard to ignore a person standing right in front of you. In asking a different question, he came up with a brilliant solution that guides people into better situations. Instead of a sign saying “watch out for pedestrians”, or trying to convince people to think about changing their behavior, a better design solves the problem naturally.

Protected Intersections For Bicyclists from Nick Falbo on Vimeo.

Good stuff right? I know a solution always looks easy once we’ve seen it. The brilliant ones in particular leave us feeling like we should have thought of them all along. And of course they do. They’re not usually challenging solutions to the wrong question, they’re usually simple answers to the right question.

So how do we ask better questions? I don’t know! But here are some examples of taking a step back and shifting the perspective on a problem.

Instead of this… We can try this…
How can we convince drivers that they should slow down? How can we design cars and roads make people want to drive slowly?
How can we fit more cars on the road? How can we effectively move more people and products between and within our city spaces?
How can we make people more aware of their use of tap water and convince them to use less? How do we design a more efficient faucet that is better to use, displays water consumption amounts, and rewards conservation behavior?
How can we convince more people to choose energy efficient light bulbs? How can we better communicate long-term savings?
How should we manage all of this trash? How can we mine this trash for usable resources?

And when thinking about these questions, more questions come up:

  • What processes or designs can help to sort these resources ahead of time?
  • How can we use the rest of this trash (this abundant resource) to solve a problem?
  • How can we reduce the use of disposable things?
  • How can we make disposable things that are actually good for the environment?
  • How can we get use less plastic and how can we reuse all the plastic that is currently wasted?

Once we start to flip the problem around, a whole new crop of solutions can appear.

Want more?

Here’s an inspiring TED talk about using design to create desired outcomes. Leyla Acaroglu: Paper beats plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore

Further Reading
Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness
by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

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