The One Question Product Managers Forget to Ask

If you have children, or a niece or nephew, or if you’ve ever babysat, or even if you’ve walked slowly past an elementary school playground and listened, you’ve probably heard the question Why?

“Time to hop off of the swing and come back to class, Megan.”


“Because recess is over, and we have to go back into the classroom now.”


“Because we still have a lot of things to do in class today.”


[Sigh] “Because I said so.”

Those conversations can be frustrating, but the child is usually onto something. Often our first answer to a question is not the complete answer or the best answer we could give. Sometimes it doesn’t really answer the question at all.

Product Managers Need to Ask Customers the Right Why Questions

We all know intuitively that we can uncover more useful information or get closer to the truth when we ask follow-up questions — often as simple as Why?

And yet, product managers often miss potentially valuable information when talking to customers because they settle for the answer to their first Why question (or some don’t ask it at all).

Imagine your company sells a client-side enterprise software application, and you receive this request from a customer.

Customer: We would like you to create a new security role that we can assign to some of our employees, one that gives them standard access but hides certain fields from their view.

You have some options here. You can, for example, simply agree to develop this new role. This might even be a product manager’s default position — to say Yes — if the request comes from a large or high-profile customer.

Or, you could follow up, like this.

You: Why?

Customer: Well, we don’t want these users to see the SQL directly, because they might use it in other products against our database.

You: Do any of these users actually have access to your back-end database?
(In other words, you’re asking: Why are you even worried about this?)

Customer: Well, no. They can’t touch the back end.

You: Ah, I see the issue here. I can tell you for sure that the front-end user privileges you give your staff will not have any effect on whether or not they can access the back end. So you shouldn’t have anything to worry about — the current user roles should meet your team’s needs.

How Drilling Down With Why Questions Will Benefit Your Product

If you had not asked these Why questions, you might have agreed to take on a development task that was entirely unnecessary to this customer and a complete waste of time for your team.

You also would not have learned that this customer mistakenly thinks that certain user privileges could affect an employee’s access to a part of the product’s back-end.

But because you did ask follow-up Why questions until you arrived at this customer’s real issue, you saved yourself those wasted development cycles. Moreover, you discovered a potentially valuable piece of information. Perhaps other customers are misusing your product, not assigning admin privileges to all employees who need it, because they too are worried that doing so might lead to unwanted changes to the application’s back-end.

Now you have an important piece of data that you can:

  1. Investigate with other customers to find out if the misconception is indeed widespread.
  2. Use to improve your user onboarding process, perhaps by dropping a message about security settings directly into your app itself.

And you gained all of that insight simply because you asked Why until you got to the core of the issue.

We at ProductPlan feel so strongly about the power of asking customers Why that in a presentation our co-founder Jim Semick gave at ProductCamp SoCal, called Questions Product Managers Should Ask Customers, Why was the first question on the list.

2 Ways to Get the Most From Your Why Questions With Customers

1. Ask About Problems, Not Features

If you ask customers what they want, they’ll give you a list of features. But cobbling together a bunch of features won’t necessarily result in a product that resonates with your persona. To strike that sort of gold, you need to build your product with an overarching strategic plan to actually solve their problem.

So when talking with customers, avoid asking them about specific features. Instead, guide the conversation to a larger, more strategic exploration of the problems they are facing, which you might be able to solve with your product.

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“When talking with customers, avoid asking them about specific features. Ask about problems.”

Also, if you start with feature questions, you will almost always have to ask more follow-up Why questions, because often the features the customer asks for won’t tell you anything about what the underlying problem is. Start strategic — a discussion of problems that need solving.

2. Find Other, Friendlier Ways to Ask Why

If a customer tells you they need specific functionality, and this leads you to a series of follow-up questions to get to the real problem they’re hoping to solve, you shouldn’t use Why every time. If you do that, eventually you’ll sound like the elementary schooler Megan on the playground.

Instead, you can draw the information you need out of your customer using other phrases, such as: “How do you see your team benefiting from that functionality?” Or: “Tell me what issue your team is facing that this functionality will solve.”

You’ll still be asking Why, in essence, but you’ll be doing so in a way that shows your customer you’re really digging into their issues — and not just annoyed that they’re not answering the questions to your satisfaction.

Every opportunity you get to speak with customers is a chance to learn something strategically valuable about your product and your persona. The best, fastest route to those valuable customer insights is usually through open-ended questions — Why being the most powerful. So whenever you are fortunate enough to have your customer’s time and ear, ask it.

What’s your favorite question? Share it in the comments below.