Why Is Not Enough: Overcoming Flaws of the Five Whys

Jared Spool

July 16th, 2013

The Five Whys is a popular form of root cause analysis — a way to get to the core reason things aren’t working so that you can identify potential solutions. The goal is to dig deep enough that you’re not just fixing symptoms.

The technique, as prescribed, is simple enough. You keep asking why. The thinking is that if you ask it five times, you’ve gotten substantially closer to the true problem.

Asking the five whys might look like this:

  1. Why are users not completing their purchases? Because they are abandoning the shopping cart.
  2. Why are they abandoning the shopping cart? Because they get stuck at the page where they have to enter their credit card.
  3. Why are they getting stuck at the credit card page? Because they think the page is not secure.
  4. Why do they think the page is not secure? Because we don’t have the right credentials on the page to show we’re legit.
  5. Why don’t we have the right credentials? Because we haven’t paid for the trust companies to inspect our service.

At the end, we come to the conclusion that we need to invest in the trust services to demonstrate that we’re a safe place to give a credit card. On the surface, we’ve done a great job of getting past the symptom to what we think the cause is.

However, how do we know this is in fact the cause? The way the method is described, it seems that just stating a cause out loud makes it into fact.

Why Is Not Enough

We need to add two questions to each round of our Whys. The first question is “How confident are we that this is the true cause?” It turns out that we were just guessing when we said that we believed the users thought the page wasn’t secure. We had no evidence to support this — it was the first thing that came to mind and we ran with it.

The second question is “What other causes could there be for this problem?” With a little research, we discover that nobody mentions the missing trust icons. However, many users we observed commented that they didn’t want to put in their credit card information until they knew how much the shipping would cost. [The next screen told them the shipping and gave them a chance to back out of the transaction, but how would they know?]

Had we just followed through with our Five Whys, we would’ve jumped through hoops and spent a bundle on trust services to get the fancy icons on our page. It’s very likely all that investment would yield almost nothing in terms of increasing people who make it through checkout.

The Five Whys are not a substitute for exploring our inferences and doing sound research. We should think of each Why as a hypothesis, giving each one a detailed shake and exploration. Combined with a solid experimental attitude, the Five Whys can be very powerful. That’s the way we need to think about them.

One Response to “Why Is Not Enough: Overcoming Flaws of the Five Whys”

  1. Nick Coster Says:

    The point of the “Five Whys” is not to speculate to yourself, but instead to ask the customer / user / buyer why 5 times. This is where the insights come from. Otherwise your guesses are limited by your own worldview and experience.

    By asking the customer directly you may find that there was a bug on the page that stopped them from proceeding, or that the the delivery terms were unclear, or that a family member distracted them during the process, or that the site didn’t work properly on the tablet they were using, or…

    The Five Why’s without the customer, is really just five stabs in an ever increasing dark.

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