It’s OK to answer a question with “I don’t know”

July 22, 2016
Matt Wallens

mistakesClients and co-workers ask a lot of great questions to user experience designers. What do you say if you don’t have an answer?

It’s not uncommon for project stakeholders to ask questions about things like interaction design or expected user behavior. I’m sure most UX designers have heard questions like “Which is better, a top navigation bar or a side navigation bar?”. We can answer these questions based on personal experience or best practices, but sometimes the questions are more specific. For example, if a client asks “What’s the best organizational structure for my application’s navigation?” the answer probably won’t be obvious. A long-standing joke among UX designers is to answer questions with the phrase “it depends”. “It depends” is a cop-out. It’s an easy answer to a question where the answer isn’t known or obvious. The problem is, many designers stop there, crickets chirping, bringing a conversation to a stop. It’s just not helpful.

What’s worse? Making up an answer to avoid saying the dreaded words “I don’t know.” A made-up answer to questions is even worse because if you’re lucky, half the time you’ll be right but most of the time you’ll end up wrong and looking like a fool.

What I recommend, when you’re asked a design question that you don’t know the answer to, is instead respond with “I don’t know, so let’s find out!” Every question has an answer, whether it’s known or not. And every unknown answer is an opportunity to talk to customers and learn how they would use your software. You, in turn, get to find out the right answer. Helpful!

I’m not saying every unknown answer warrants an entire full-blown research study (although if resources are available, why not do some guerilla testing?). But what I recommend is to keep track of these questions. Keep them in a list. Weave them into your future research so as you plan your next regularly scheduled research study, you can revisit your list of open questions and make sure they’re addressed.

image credit: doobybrain