Subject matter naiveté is our super power. We’re brought into new contexts as experts in process and creation, not in the subject matter we’re supporting. We’re there to help create clarity and value from something that subject matter experts know intimately, but may struggle to see with an outside perspective.
Being able and willing to ask questions is critical to understanding problems and identifying opportunities for clarity. In the context of our work on government digital services, this is particularly important for content creators, defined here as UX designers, UX researchers, and content writers.
As creators, we need to learn enough to become short-term experts. We are charged with understanding concepts broadly (and sometimes deeply) and translating that expert understanding into one that is accessible to a broader audience. To play this role, we need to be brave, ask questions, and test our understanding.
Shifting from bravado to bravery
When we begin our careers as creators, we’re advised to build resumes, highlight strengths, and reach a little further than our experience dictates. This stretching is in tension with our natural strength as professional n00bs. Once we’re in an environment where we need to ask questions, we have to reset the bravado of the job hunt and turn back to the creative question-asking roots that sent us down this path in the first place.
Just like when using a search engine, some understanding is appreciated and useful for framing a question well enough to get a helpful answer. The key is to understand things well enough to ask informed questions, but not so well that you start to make your own assumptions.
Context where this is important
Being inquisitive is relevant to all of the groups we work with. In each case, the good news is that we’re set up with compelling circumstances to ask questions.
In our work supporting government service delivery by way of digital tools, we’re never the first to the party. Legislation, regulation, policy, and operations have preceded us by decades. These things all support and define what is inevitably an incredibly complex system. In addition to the layers of bureaucracy and history, odds are high that industry-specific terms, processes, and theories are layered on top. Those industries might include healthcare, transportation, education, the military, or any number of sciences.
Good news: This means there’s almost no way you can come into a project as an expert — and you won’t be expected to, so it’s understood that you’ll have lots of catching up to do.
As designers, researchers, and content writers in the public sector, our primary concern is to support the needs of the people using the service that we’re helping to craft.
Sometimes the users we speak to are as much subject matter experts as our government clients are. Users of government services have been navigating these complex systems for far longer than we have, and they come to the table with personal contexts, which can affect the experience in ways that the government service isn’t expecting.
If something isn’t working or something is confusing for the users, it’s on us to create clarity.
Good news: This means the people we speak with will always be the experts of their own experience, and we’ll always be positioned to learn more.
At Ad Hoc, we work in cross-disciplinary teams and come from all kinds of backgrounds from all across the United States. Some of us have worked in government for years, and some of us come from the worlds of startups, nonprofits, fintech, academia, etc. That’s what prepares us to spin up effective teams to tackle the complexity of large government initiatives.
We ask questions at the beginning of a project to create core understanding. The information we gather through discovery and research gets documented, but the nuance of that information often has the most value when paired with narrative from those who gathered it. And the documentation is never done! New contexts mean the same question may have applied value that was different than when it was asked for the first time.
Good news: Any question you ask will get well-informed opinions from many different perspectives. Just because someone asked the question before doesn’t mean there isn’t value in asking in a new context.
Ways to get comfortable and ask questions
Finding the right way to ask questions can sometimes be difficult.
Share the burden
- Brainstorm a list of questions in advance with your colleagues. Consider sharing the weight of those questions and identifying who feels prepared to follow up on certain subjects.
- If you don’t understand something, there’s probably someone else in the room who also doesn’t understand. Take a hit for the team and ask for clarity.
- Repeat what someone said back to them. If it doesn’t sounds right when repeated, they’ll clarify. Try phrases like:
- It sounds like what you’re saying is …
- If I understand correctly …
- To summarize …
- Ok, so here’s what I took down from that …
Asking for the definition of an acronym is easy and will often encourage an explanation of more than just the term.
Policy language and implications are complex, and your government clients know this. Asking for clarity based on the policy is a good way to open up a conversation.
- Try phrases like:
- Just so I make sure I understand the policy …
- How has that policy been interpreted in implementation?
- What parts of the policy have been trickiest to implement?
- What questions does the help desk receive most often?
- How has this policy changed over time?
Ask open-ended questions
Open-ended questions are always valuable in interview-style interactions with users. They can also help you navigate a lack of subject matter expertise.
- Try phrases like:
- What does that mean to you?
- How would you describe that to a friend or colleague who doesn’t have experience in that topic?
- What questions do you have about that?
- What information is missing?
At Ad Hoc, we’re a fully remote team, so finding the right venue to ask questions can sometimes be a bit difficult. We rely on chat tools and video calls for most of our communication. These services can be combined to address different communication needs.
Try some of these methods:
- Direct message someone in a chat tool if you feel more comfortable being vulnerable in private.
- Ask in a public chat channel if you don’t know who will have the answer.
- Set up a meeting if there are several questions or your question will require background information.
- Direct message someone to set up a short conversation if the answer is likely simple, but the question is hard to type; you can say “Hey. Do you have 5 minutes to talk about xyz?”
- Send an email if your timezone doesn’t line up with your colleague’s and you’re worried about it getting lost in Slack.
As creators, we can use these frameworks and tips to bravely embrace our role as professional n00bs. But brave does not mean we need to be brazen or brash. As Cyd Harrell puts it, approach these questions from a position of “warm neutral.”
it *does* show interest, but it doesn't add a lot of comments. it's not too heavy on reflections back; it asks questions, politely. /7— Cyd Harrell (@cydharrell) August 25, 2017
Subject matter naiveté is our expertise. We’re hired to be experts in process, creation, and problem solving, and the primary tool we use to do this work is asking questions.
In every context, we have an opportunity to position ourselves as warm, respectful, and inquisitive. If we approach these opportunities from a position of warm neutral and use context-specific tools to reach out and frame questions, we’ll build stronger relationships and produce better solutions for our clients and our users.
Illustration by Barb Denney