Do you need a business blog? The 5 whys technique

Michael owns and operates a removals business. But his business isn’t just any old removalist, it has real environmental chops: it’s officially carbon neutral,  it’s trucks run on bio-diesel – 100% waste vegetable oil, it reuses and recycles packing material and the office is on 100% green energy.

But Michael is dissatisfied that his green credentials haven’t been the ‘calling card’ he was looking for; attracting the business he wants. He speculates about a business blog.

A business blog is a term for publicly available web content, usually written, but also visual and audio, delivered via a website. I say ‘business’ because it’s a blog whose primary concern is to serve business or career aims, as opposed to a personal blog where hobbies and individual interests come first. It’s also a verb to describe the act of composing a blog.

Does Michael need to blog then? Simple. Surely he only need weigh the benefits up against the disadvantages and get going (or not)?  Less talk, more blog. But decision-making is much more messy than that.

Michael’s question about business blogging is really a solution looking for a problem. What’s the problem?

Our culture pushes people to jump to solutions more often than it allows us to dwell on problems. We’re taught early on to avoid problems. We even have an over-used euphemism: ‘issues’.

ask why

Take it apart, see how it works

I remember the delight I felt when, as a boy, I dismantled a wind up mouse. I couldn’t put it back together exactly the same way it started off but I learnt a lot about how it worked.

A mechanical toy is a complete solution to a bunch of design problems and it doesn’t need to by taken apart. But a blog is only a partial solution to business design problems. In a sense, a hastily constructed solution is a business process ‘fault’.

If you’re looking for advice on whether you should start a blog then you won’t find it here but you might get a powerful technique for how to approach it.

5 Whys

The technique I’ve found success with is simple: ask why until you uncover the underlying problem. It’s been used in manufacturing for ages where it’s called the 5 whys, a form of root cause analysis.

Here’s some things I’ve learnt that’ll help you apply it:

  • Dwell on the problem; ask why as many or few times as necessary to get to the nub of the problem
  • Keep the questions simple; ask with a real sense of curiosity
  • Record the answers
  • Don’t feel like you need to solve any particular problem that arises
  • If you feel the timing is right, also ask a contrary question to test assumptions. I’ve since discovered this is a loose version of what’s called counterfactual testing and I’ve included some examples of this below.

5 whys is also linked to negotiation. It has the side-benefit of focusing on ‘needs’ rather than ‘positions’ and it’s an excellent way to get more people to buy into the eventual solution. Here’s my example of the 5 whys in action:

1. Why do you want a blog? 

Michael thinks a blog may define his unique service offering in the removal industry. (Although I didn’t ask, a counterfactual question you ask could be: why a blog specifically, why not a Facebook page, Twitter account, word of mouth, seminar, webinar or printed material? Or why haven’t you already done one?)

2. Why do you need to define your unique service offering? 

Michael: no one else in the industry is doing green removal. ( How do you know – have you researched this? What about other countries?)

3. Why is no one doing green removal?

Michael: because it’s a conservative industry? (What would removals look like if everyone was ‘going green’?)

4. Why is it a conservative industry?

Michael: because people mainly compete on price. (What would a ‘progressive’ removal industry look like?)

5. Why do people mainly compete on price?

Michael: people want to get from A to B as quick as possible. They want to know we’ll be there on time and take care not to break anything. But they want it cheap. Why would you pay more just because we do all of that AND don’t wreck the planet? (Do you have any examples of a customer hiring you on a factor other than price?)

Focus on the process

So where did the 5 whys (and counterfactual testing) take us? To a strategy problem. Maybe it’s a mismatch between the services and the market.

5 whys technique says to focus on the process. Your business strategy is more of a process than a thing – how you continue to answer questions about your business. And a blog – which is really a way to get your knowledge out of the shop floor (clinic, office, workshop, etc.) – could help you ask and answer a bunch of questions, defining and refining your business strategy.


Back up in the stratosphere

Stop! Does that document you’re working on actually exist? Techy reasoning goes… if a digital document doesn’t exist in three places, it doesn’t exist at all. Enter ‘the Cloud’. If you haven’t heard of the Cloud, where have you been? What I’m about to describe is cloud computing – the use of computing hardware and software resources delivered as a service usually over the Internet.

So, this is how I make my data exist in three places:

I use the free version of Google Apps. I have a Google Drive folder on my hard drive. I save everything I need to it. It gets instantly synchronised with my Google Drive folder on the web. It also gets backed up with my Seagate wireless external hard drive. Three places: my hard drive, Google Drive in the cloud and on my external hard drive. It exists. If in a disaster I lose one I still have two copies to recover from.

Cloud computing also happens to be the best way for me to manage my emails and calendar, folders and document sharing. This isn’t an ad for Google – I’d be happy for someone to show me another system that works as well it’s just… it’s free (ads aside) and works well.

Computing wasn’t always thus. Before the cloud I used to be forever losing documents. It doesn’t surprise me that people and businesses I know still lose data due to shoddy practices. Yes, losing data.

In fact, backup and the online office as Cloud services are now so necessary that my friend, Andrew Davis, has turned the Cloud into a business – Boxless. Boxless helps organisations work more effectively with web-based software and then Andrew trains staff how to use it… properly. I recently spoke to Andrew about the Cloud.

Even though the past 10-15 years has made it dramatically easier for organisations to improve productivity with the aid of technology, we don’t know quite how to take advantage of the changes. The best way Andrew’s found to explain it is in metaphor:

Buying software is now like buying electricity. It can be purchased cost effectively as a service on a pay-as-you-go basis. Back in the 1990s, organisations didn’t have this option. IT projects involved high upfront capital investment in hardware and software. It was sort of the IT equivalent of installing a diesel generator in your office. It seems to me that many IT consultants are still stuck in the 1990s. They’re supplying generators to their clients, when they should really be connecting them to the electricity grid.

Andrew works directly with his customers to provide the benefits of Cloud computing.


Even with the technological advances we’ve made, people are still people.

On his projects Andrew says, “it all comes down to trust… engagements tend to progress well when I’m working with a business owner (or decision maker) who is good at thinking conceptually.”

For me, I managed to solve my own productivity and disaster recovery problems in the Cloud. As Andrew states, “business owners are often pretty clear on the problem, but unsure of how best to solve them. If I’m able to earn their trust, then we’re often able to get staff working ‘smarter’ quite quickly.”

Social media organisation

Andrew is also an expert on social media in organisations so I couldn’t resist asking him about that, too, as it is related to the future world of rapidly changing communication technology.

What are his thoughts on social media in the organisation? “My experience (with Yammer) is that it can dramatically flatten the organisational hierarchy. It can facilitate good discussion, and enable people to find answers to questions far more quickly than via other media. However,” Andrew goes on, “for it to work well, it still needs strong support from an organisation’s leadership. They really do need to ‘walk the walk’.”

Be mindful

Andrew plans to work more with his clients on the mindsets and behaviours their staff need to develop if they are to be able to work effectively in the new communications world. Like me, Andrew is interested in the theory and practice of ‘mindfulness‘. In an increasingly busy world we recognise that, as workers – especially ‘knowledge’ workers, we need sometimes to observe life from the stratosphere.

I started off with data and now I’m back to people. Funny that. We can’t get away from the fact that people will always be the purpose of technology – even if we forget sometimes.

Man watching kites


Facebook nuances language to handle conflict

What we’ve found is that language is so important for meeting people’s needs and providing them a product or experience that helps them express how they’re feeling. (Jake Brill)

With over a billion users, you’d expect Facebook to research and understand language better than most.

In this ABC Rado National interview – Is Facebook becoming more friendly? – Facebook Site Integrity Team product manager, Jake Brill describes how he collaborates with emotional intelligence experts to create tools for tackling online conflict amongst users. The system, called social resolution, is designed to help teenage users better communicate their feelings and handle conflicts between friends, should material be uploaded that a person might not agree with.

Jake is in Australia to present a talk on online social resolution tools atThe 6th Annual Congress on Family Law and Children’s Rightsthis week.



Don’t get mad, get data

Has this happened to you? You create a design and someone – or a committee of someones – changes it. It doesn’t matter how you well you argue or justify your design. They just change it.

This happened to me last year when I was working pro bono on the content and information architecture for the website of Michael Olsen, a Melbourne-based playwright. I also helped Michael find a local WordPress developer who he then paid to build

Now, people make changes to designs to suit themselves all the time. What’s wrong with that? And even though I wasn’t being paid, he was the client. Relax, it happens all the time. Right?

Well… Yes. And… No, damnit.

I’m right

You see, my designs were based on more than just me – my experiences and opinion. I used data. Unconventional I know. I’d tested the potential audience to discover what they were interested in. I’d run keyword searches to understand the language people use. (Factoid: the word ‘performances’ is more often used than ‘productions’ in searches related to theatre.) I’d conducted card sorting and tree testing activities. I’d run the results through the filter of my experience to produce the design.

And it wasn’t just that my design was difficult to build within the limitations of the software. Sure it was hard to specify exactly how visitors might find what they’re looking for from Michael’s more than 50 plays. But my research showed that people were very interested in the author, his news and his plays. This gave me the clue that site visitors – including potential directors and producers – would spend the time browsing the plays. They’re original plays for god’s sake; they’re interesting.

I was peeved

With all that up my sleeve how could I lose the argument? Well, they didn’t bother with the argument. They just changed it.

That’s when I decided to get data.

I had the top tasks, I had the live site and I had guinea pigs willing test subjects. According to my original study, these were the top five tasks:

  1. Check out the news: new plays, upcoming/recent performances, reviews
  2. About Michael
  3. Read synopses of plays
  4. Browse plays by… genre, number & gender of characters, number of acts, running time, etc.
  5. Who Michael has worked with: actors, directors, producers

So, as I was testing on another website, I just asked my test subjects to perform these tasks and watched them. Simple.


The look and feel were found to be agreeable. “It’s light and simple,” said one. “I like the font and colours,” said another. Tick.

A general quiz showed the navigation and labels were OK. “It seems clear to me because when you mouse over those words a menu appears with the options I expect,” said one. Tick.

Task 1 Check out the news…:

In my original architecture I created a News tab and also linked clearly from the home page – describing what visitors were likely to expect when they clicked on News. I deliberately collapsed the ideas of Blog and News together for a number of reasons.

My test subjects were able to find News because of its prominence in the menu structure. The fact that it’s not often updated regularly (yet) is another matter and thankfully I kept News items off the homepage thinking that was the case. But there is now a Blog menu item which confused subjects for a while about News but… that’s a tick.

Task 2 About Michael:

This is a no brainer and my subjects found it pretty easily. Although one commented it was hidden further along the top horizontal menu than he expected which is not how I specified it. But… it was a minor change. Tick.

Task 3 Read synopses:

This is a straightforward alphabetical list of all the plays. It’s easy to find as Synopses A-Z is the only menu item under The Plays. I had broken up browsing A-K and L-Z, but A-Z was OK, just a bit more scrolling. Tick.

Task 4 Browse plays…:

This was the task subjects had the most problem with. None succeeded in being able to browse the plays by any of the categories. The original structure supported browsing for plays; replaced by a Search interface on the homepage. The relationship between search and navigation on websites is subtle and complex. Search is often used by people on the web but, as Jakob Nielsen writes in Converting Search into Navigation:

  • Most users are unable to solve even halfway complicated problems with search. Better to redirect their efforts into more supportive user interfaces when possible.

Furthermore, and somewhat paradoxically, search giant Google valorises web content. Google’s content and design guidelines recommend creating:

  • a clear hierarchy and text links with every page reachable from at least one static text link
  • a useful, information-rich site, and write pages that clearly and accurately describe your content

Hence my focus on making the categories browseable. It’s also what subjects stated they wanted when pressed – the Search interface is confusing due to the system of tagging the plays with the number and gender of characters. My system was much simpler and would have been searchable, too. It involved being much more general about the number and gender of characters so they could be browseable on a single page. This tested well on the tree testing I did initially and this was the case in practice. No tick.

Task 5 Who Michael has worked with…:

Subjects had no chance as this menu item and this information just didn’t make it to the final cut. No tick.

So the scorecard isn’t too bad – some good general comments, 2 straightforward ticks, a qualified 1 and 2 fails on the 5 top tasks. Not surprising since it’s a pretty simple website. Frankly, I was surprised by the data.

Data is better for blood pressure

Is this article equivalent to a building architect delivering drawings and then whingeing about the client and builder when things are changed? Maybe. There’s no doubt there’s a strong family resemblance between building and information architecture.

But also differences:

  • It’s hard to change a building once it’s built; with the right software, websites lend themselves to small incremental improvements.
  • It’s also easier to observe website behaviour. Between the surveying, card sorting, wireframes, tree testing, analytics, search data and user observation we do, it’s much easier to understand how visitors will use a website than use a building. Note: this is changing – mocking up rooms to understand how people use them is gaining momentum (see New York Times article Factory Efficiency Comes to the Hospital).

Understanding website usage and “getting your hands dirty” with the data is worth sticking up for. I recommend data over anger if only for two reasons:

  1. you learn a hell of a lot more by being objective about it
  2. it’s better for blood pressure

Data can surprise us. We already know our opinions – by definition – there are no surprises there. An opinion’s sample size is one. Go for data, become your own scientist and experiment, experiment, experiment.