A Parable

Once upon a time I was in high school. Ah, the halcyon days of my youth. One day I was sitting in class, minding my own business when the teacher said: “Does anyone have a thin metal ruler?”

No answer. Apparently no one had a thin metal ruler.

“No? How about a nail file?”

No answer. Now, I cannot imagine that of all the girls in the class, not one of them had a nail file. But I can well imagine that none of them wanted to share it with a teacher.

“No? Hmm.”

So I piped up: “What do you need a nail file for?”

“I have this big staple in this document that I need to remove.”

Upon which point one of my classmates mentioned that he had a staple remover. Problem solved.

Over and over again I find that script customers (both internal consumers here at Microsoft and third-party developers) frequently ask questions like my teacher. That is, they have a preconceived notion of how the problem is going to be solved, and then ask the necessary questions to implement their preconceived solution. And in many cases this is a pretty good technique! Had someone actually brought a thin metal ruler to class, the problem would have been solved. But by choosing a question that emphasizes the solution over the problem, the questioner loses all ability to leverage the full knowledge of the questionees.

When someone asks me a question about the script technologies I almost always turn right around and ask them why they want to know. I might be able to point them at some tool that better solves their problem. And I might also learn something about what problems people are trying to solve with my tools.

Joel Spolsky once said that people don’t want drills, they want holes. As a drill provider, I’m fascinated to learn what kinds of holes people want to put in what kinds of materials, so to speak. Sometimes people think they want a drill when in fact they want a rotary cutter.

Comments (3)

  1. Blake says:

    My preferred formulation is "Don’t ask a user what they want, ask them what they want to do; then give them what they need to do it."

  2. Before I get into today’s blogging, a quick note about my recent post on How To Not Get A Question Answered

  3. Raymond has had lots of great posts over the years on how to not get a question answered. Some of the