5W+H = Knowledge to Design an Excellent User Experience

Jim Ross / Monday, June 29, 2015

You may have heard that to design a good user experience you first need to understand the users and their needs, but what exactly do you need to know? It comes down to five W and one H question – Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. The answers to these six questions reveal the context of use – the people, their tasks, their tools and technology, and the environment in which they will be using the product you’re designing.


Who are the users? What are their characteristics? What knowledge and experience do they bring to their tasks? Are there different user groups? If so, what distinguishes them from each other, and which user groups are most important?


What do the users do? What are the tasks they need to accomplish? You need to understand their tasks as a whole as well as the tasks that pertain to the product or system that you’re designing.


How do they perform those tasks? While what asks about the tasks people perform, how asks for the details of how they perform those tasks. For example, paying a credit card bill is what someone does. How they pay it, gets into the detailed, individual steps involved in the task.


Where are these people when they perform their tasks? Which physical characteristics of that environment affect how they perform their tasks? Lighting conditions, temperature, noise, interruptions, privacy, space, interactions with other people, physical movement, and other conditions of the location could influence how they perform tasks.


When do they perform these tasks? Are they in a hurry, or can they take their time? How often do they perform these tasks? If it’s something they do every day, they can learn and remember how the system works. If it’s something they only do a few times a year, it’s unlikely that you can rely on them to learn and remember how to use the system.


Why do they perform these tasks? What are they really trying to accomplish? People perform tasks because they want to achieve higher-level goals. For example, people use personal financial software to update their records of their bank and credit card accounts and to pay bills. Those are their specific, lower-level tasks, but their higher-level goals are to feel more control over their finances, to better understand and control their spending, and to save money. Supporting users’ tasks is merely the minimum. Helping them better achieve their true goals is what leads to an excellent user experience.

How do you get the answers to these questions?

You could simply ask people these questions, but it’s difficult for people to provide accurate answers by simply talking about what they do outside of the context of performing those tasks.

Instead, the best way to learn this information is to go out and observe:

  • The people who will be using your product
  • To observe what they currently do and how they do it
  • In the location where they do it
  • At the time when they do it

This observation, combined with interviews, would lead to answering why they perform these tasks.

The Sixth W – What if?

Once you’ve answered the five W’s and the H, you have enough information to begin asking “What if?” What if begins the design process by trying out ideas and possible solutions to help users best achieve their goals.