Better decisions start with broader options | by Beverly Freeman | Feb, 2024


The big idea: Understand why to create more options for how
Try asking
: “Why? What makes [option] a good idea?”

The last technique provides a practical way to identify more options to consider, especially when you’re in conversation with someone who offers a specific idea. The ladder of abstraction is a simple but powerful tool for moving a conversation “up” to focus on “why”, or “down” to focus on “how.”

The design of soup cans is used to demonstrate the power of abstraction laddering in “Mental models for designers.” If you focus on “Design a better can opener,” you will iterate on can openers, perhaps by exploring ways to make them more comfortable to use. However, if you move up the ladder to ask why you’d design a better can opener, it would lead you to the goal of “Get soup out of the can.” With that new goal as the focal point, you can ask, “How else could we get soup out of the can?”, thus leading to an innovation such as the pop-top can (which requires no can opener at all).

An example of a ladder of abstraction. The central prompt is “Design a better can opener.” Asking “How?” leads to “Make it more comfortable.” Asking “Why?” leads to “Get soup out of a can.” From there, asking “How else?” leads to “Make it more convenient.”
Example of abstraction laddering for can openers. Illustration by the author.

Abstraction laddering is an excellent tool to use when responding to others’ specific ideas. You can use it to encourage someone to broaden their aperture without it coming across as rejecting them or their idea. For example, if a user suggests a certain feature or design, you don’t have to take it at face value; by asking “What’s good about that idea?” or “How would that be beneficial?”, you surface the “why” behind their idea. That can then spur an exploration of how else to achieve the benefits associated with their idea.

Similarly, abstraction laddering can facilitate a productive discussion about someone’s ideas about your work as a UX researcher. If a stakeholder requests a specific research method, ask what they hope to gain from using that method. It can be easy to have a knee-jerk reaction to certain methods (focus groups or surveys, anyone?). Instead of focusing on the merits (or lack thereof) of a suggestion, reorient the conversation to the larger goal at hand. That will also help your own response shift from reactionary to investigatory.

Another way to think about abstraction laddering is that it helps you shift from leading with nouns (What product / feature / idea to pursue?) to leading with verbs (What should the solution do, or enable people to do?) and adjectives (What are traits of a great solution?). You then use this set of valuable verbs and adjectives to generate a wider range of nouns (i.e. potential solutions) to consider.


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