/ The Dialog Box Interview with Courtney Greene McDonald


A WeaveUX exclusive outtake from Putting the User First.

"Make no little plans. They have no power to stir men’s blood."
Daniel Burnham, as quoted in Devil in the White City

Recently I was sitting on an airplane without anything to read. (For a librarian, I’m notoriously bad at forgetting my reading.) I wasn’t too upset: it was a short flight, and—true confession—I love airline magazines.

On this particular day, in this particular Southwest plane, there was this particular article titled “Chasing Beautiful Questions,” by Warren Berger. It begins with a story about Van Phillips, the man who engineered the Flex-Foot prosthetic limb after he himself lost a leg in a boating accident.

... he asked a question that would change the world of prosthetics: If they can put a man on the moon, why can’t they make a better foot?

It was a good question. But it did not become a beautiful question—one that leads to invention and profound change—until Phillips changed a pronoun. Gradually, he found himself taking ownership of the question. Instead of asking, Why can’t they make a better foot?, he asked, Why can’t I? (Berger 2014, 70)

Berger identifies a cycle of three questions asked by innovators he calls “master questioners”: Why (curiosity), What If (speculation), and How (action-oriented). He opines that it is in the How phase beautiful questions appear, leading to answers that change lives in ways large and small: mobile phones, microwave ovens, windshield wipers, bar codes, Polaroid cameras, Gatorade—or a prosthetic limb.

User experience work is all about questions: those our patrons answer using our resources (we hope), those asked of us by patrons, or the questions we ourselves ask about our patrons or our services. I oversee a couple of web applications and work at the reference desk, so I field plenty of questions: How can I renew? Why doesn’t this (or does this) do ...? A portion of the questions really boil down to this: Why did you do this to us? Given a diverse enough user base, one person’s enhancement is not unlikely to become another’s complaint.

With so many variables to consider, it’s hard to be certain you are asking the right question, much less a beautiful one, which can lead even the most earnest user experience professional toward a cynicism spiral. Henry Ford supposedly said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”[1] Snappy quotation, certainly, and who hasn’t (in a brief fit of self pity) fancied herself a misunderstood innovator ahead of her time? Patience, grasshopper: great user experiences do not emerge from regularly making assumptions about what people need and want. Instead, that tendency can easily re-route you from would-be visionary into the express lane to “horse’s patootie.”

Sometimes questions inspire me, and some days they just make me want to engineer a conveniently timed power outage, take the grid down and switch to my Plan B.[2] A pretty attractive answer can occur at any level (substitute any words that add up to “yes” or “I fixed it” or “better today than yesterday”). A beautiful question generally winds up being big, messy, and fraught with contradictions.

I’m not much of a philosopher, so let me lay it out for you straight: these beautiful questions are really just a dare. Many of us probably associate dares with our younger selves and “feats of prowess” – jumping off a swing at the highest point, ill-advised pool dives of all sorts, grabbing that really gross bug. We can have grown-up dares, though ... even library dares. (Let’s face it, some days just fixing that one link totally qualifies as a feat of prowess.)

Beautiful questions are about daring to question what is, to believe that things could be different, and then to dream a big dream that difference will be better. This sounds suspiciously like user experience work to me. The last and most difficult step is, as Berger noted, taking ownership of the question and believing that, however unlikely, however long and drawn out the process, however difficult, that you yourself (yes, you) can make a change. Noble, yes, but be advised: it can take a long time, often results in being misunderstood, and requires a lot of work few other people will notice. Inspirational, aren’t I?

You might need to start small: We will go from two request buttons to just one. We will stop asking people to provide contact information we already have. Once you can believe six impossible things before breakfast—an excellent skill if you plan to continue your work in library user experience—why sweat to scry a soapbox racer when you can picture the grand prix winner? Our users will find and use our stuff no matter where they are or where they begin looking. Easy, sustainable, scalable data management for everybody.

How do you go about sharing a beautiful question with a lot of other people? Can a library ask a beautiful question?

I dare us to make it easier—even fun—to interact with the library. I dare us to find a better way. I dare us to ask, to listen, and to answer in search of a better user experience.

Contemplate – Questions to ask yourself

Bernadette Jiwa outlines a “difference map” intended to help companies and individuals identify their unique niche, articulate it in terms of the users’ needs, and then position themselves accordingly. This reminded me of Drucker’s Five Questions.

What is our mission?Principles [Trust about me/us; Truth about the market/industry; Truth about the people I/we want to serve]
Purpose [Why do we exist?]
Who is our customer?People [Who is this for? What do they care about?]
What does the customer value?Personal [How can we change how people feel?]
Perception [What do they believe?]
What are our results?Product [What do people really want or need? How do we create value for our customers?]
What is our plan?Personal [How can we help them live better lives?]
Perception [What would we like them to believe about us?]

Try really engaging with Drucker’s and Jiwa's questions and see if they don’t challenge your thinking and your practices, as they did mine.


  • Berger, Warren. 2014a. A More Beautiful Question: The Power of Inquiry to Spark Breakthrough Ideas. New York, NY: Bloomsbury USA.
  • ———. 2014b. “Chasing Beautiful Questions.” Spirit Magazine, April.
  • Drucker, Peter F., and Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute. 2008. The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization. New York : San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Jiwa, Bernadette. 2014. Difference: The One-Page Method for Reimagining Your Business and Reinventing Your Marketing. Australia: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
  • ———. 2014. “The Difference Map.” Difference. Accessed May 21. http://difference.is/difference-map/.
  • Larson, Erik. 2003. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. New York: Crown Publishers.
  • Vlaskovits, Patrick. 2011. “Henry Ford, Innovation, and That ‘Faster Horse’ Quote.” HBR Blog Network. http://blogs.hbr.org/2011/08/henry-ford-never-said-the-fast/.


1. Vlaskovits, Patrick. 2011. “Henry Ford, Innovation, and That ‘Faster Horse’ Quote.” HBR Blog Network. http://blogs.hbr.org/2011/08/henry-ford-never-said-the-fast/.return to text

2. Speaking of which, you heard it here first: the post-apocalyptic future is going to revolve around cheese and ruminants, according to Matthew Reidsma, Margaret Heller, and myself.return to text