In the field of design research, leading questions are generally considered undesirable and are carefully avoided, especially in foundational research (where the design team is trying to develop a basic understanding of some domain of actors, their goals, behaviors, attitudes, contexts, etc.), and in generative research (where the team looks for opportunities to introduce improvements to the actors’ situations).
Researchers try instead to ask open-ended questions, which tend to have the form of a request — for a story, a description, an opinion a lesson, etc..
Leading questions, and even more neutrally-stated closed-ended questions, tend to direct the research participant toward responses anticipated by the researcher.
The greatest value of foundational and generative interviews, however, is often in the unanticipated responses — ones that never would have occurred to the researcher or to anyone else on the design team, had the research not been conducted.
These responses are surprising precisely because they are answers to surprising questions — questions that nobody knew to ask, but which the open-ended question coaxed into the open. These questions point to different conceptions our participants use to make sense of their worlds, conceptions that give things distinctly different patterns of significance and relevance, and which make the difference between designs that hit home and designs that seem off-the-mark.
When designers think with the conceptions used by their users — or even better, on revelatory improvements to their conceptions — the design concepts make immediate and profound sense to the users. Ideally, users experience it as: “They get me!”
But if closed-ended questions are asked (questions that imply a limited set of answers), or worse, if leading questions are asked (questions that point to a narrow range of desired answers) the participants will use their social competence to answer the question ask, according to its implied conceptions. The researchers get their answers — but those answers conceal something more valuable: the key to how the participant thinks, their own conceptions, which is the entrance to their worldview.
I am currently rereading Susanne Langer for the first time in 11 years, and I am realizing just how much I gained from reading her:
The “technique,” or treatment, of a problem begins with its first expression as a question. The way a question is asked limits and disposes the ways in which any answer to it — right or wrong — may be given. … Such implicit “ways” are not avowed by the average man, but simply followed. He is not conscious of assuming any basic principles. They are what a German would call his “Weltanschauung” [worldview], his attitude of mind, rather than specific articles of faith. They constitute his outlook; they are deeper than facts he may note or propositions he may moot… But, though they are not stated, they find expression in the forms of his questions. A question is really an ambiguous proposition; the answer is its determination. There can be only a certain number of alternatives that will complete its sense. In this way the intellectual treatment of any datum, any experience, any subject, is determined by the nature of our questions, and only carried out in the answers.
But what is really inspiring this line of thought is something subtler I am picking up in Langer’s words, a fascinating use of “leading questions’. The first example is example: “The concepts that preoccupied them had no application in those realms, and therefore did not give rise to new, interesting, leading questions about social or moral affairs.” The second example really drives it home:
The rise of technology is the best possible proof that the basic concepts of physical science, which have ruled our thinking for nearly two centuries, are essentially sound. They have begotten knowledge, practice, and systematic understanding; no wonder they have given us a very confident and definite Weltanschauung. They have delivered all physical nature into our hands. But strangely enough, the so-called “mental sciences” have gained very little from the great adventure. One attempt after another has failed to apply the concept of causality to logic and aesthetics, or even sociology and psychology. Causes and effects could be found, of course, and could be correlated, tabulated, and studied; but even in psychology, where the study of stimulus and reaction has been carried to elaborate lengths, no true science has resulted. No prospects of really great achievement have opened before us in the laboratory. If we follow the methods of natural science our psychology tends to run into physiology, histology, and genetics; we move further and further away from those problems which we ought to be approaching. That signifies that the generative idea which gave rise to physics and chemistry and all their progeny — technology, medicine, biology — does not contain any vivifying concept for the humanistic sciences. The physicist’s scheme, so faithfully emulated by generations of psychologists, epistemologists, and aestheticians, is probably blocking their progress, defeating possible insights by its prejudicial force. The scheme is not false — it is perfectly reasonable — but it is bootless for the study of mental phenomena. It does not engender leading questions and excite a constructive imagination, as it does in physical researches. Instead of a method, it inspires a militant methodology.
Leading questions are ones that contain a conception — a generative idea! The reason we ask open-ended questions in design research, and avoid our own closed-ended or leading questions, is to make it possible to uncover better leading questions — ones that are either familiarly relevant or inspiringly novel to our users!
The goal of design research is to upgrade our leading questions. These new leading questions are then posed as opportunity formulas (such as “how might we?” questions) or as design briefs that conceptualize a problem in a way that generates solutions compatible with how the research participants conceive their worlds. As John Dewey put it, “A problem well put is a problem half solved.”
I enjoy calling what I do “precision inspiration“. Precision inspiration replaces stale, lifeless, irrelevant questions with novel, living, relevant questions, which activate new and better conceptions capable of imagining and producing novel, relevant, exciting solutions.