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Why Ask Why?

Why, indeed.

It's common to ask "Why?" when it comes to computers. It's also common to be frustrated with the answer.

I was helping a friend the other day with some Windows issues and a not-uncommon question came up, one that I often dread.

Why?” As in, “Why did they do that?”

It’s a common question that gets applied to computers and software of all generations and iterations. Recent versions of Windows have certainly generated a healthy share of “Why?” questions — but trust me, it’s nothing new.

The problem is, asking “Why?” is an exercise in futility more often than not.

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It’s rarely fruitful to ask “why” something is the way it is. The answer, if it even exists, will rarely help and often frustrate. Since the question is usually asked out of frustration, it’s best to understand that regardless of why it is what it is, it is what it is. Best to deal with it and move on.

Don’t ask out of frustration

Faced with something they don’t understand, can’t comprehend, or just don’t like, many people ask “Why?” out of frustration.

Why were decisions made the way they were? What were they thinking? The questions may be mostly a way to emphasize just how much the questioner disagrees with those decisions. They’re not really looking for an answer.

That’s a good thing because most of the time, there is no answer. Expecting one — in particular, one that would allow you to reconcile whatever issue you’re facing and thus be OK with it — is just going to frustrate you when no answer is available.

Searching for a why out of frustration is energy wasted.

To get all Zen for a moment, it is what it is.

Getting frustrated, demanding to know why, or even understanding why isn’t going to change any of that. You don’t have to like it, but it’s probably best to simply accept whatever it is for what it is and make decisions accordingly.

When the why isn’t the real why

One of the most frustrating answers in technology when it comes to “Why?” is what I refer to as marketing-speak; you could even say misleading or misdirected marketing-speak, at that.

This happens when the source of our frustration believes we can’t handle the truth, or simply doesn’t want to share the truth, and gives us some corporate line about why a specific change was made.

A company might say they made a change because their tests revealed it was better, stronger, faster, or whatever, when in reality, the change was made to further some agenda. That agenda might be about selling more product (not something they want to admit publicly), unifying some underlying technology (rarely a selling point), or laying a foundation for some future direction (that they can’t yet admit to for competitive reasons). Or it could be some other random reason.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear to those of us who use the resulting change that it’s anything but better, stronger, faster, or whatever.

Once again, the reason doesn’t matter. It is what it is. They did what they did for whatever reason they did it.

Live with it or seek out alternatives. In either case, move on.

Often, the answer doesn’t help

Sometimes, you get lucky and actually find out why something is the way it is. And once you know why… you’re no better off.

“Why did they change the user interface?”

“So it would be consistent across all kinds of devices.”

“But I don’t use other devices. Besides, it doesn’t work on the device I do have.”

Doesn’t matter. That’s what they did and that’s why they did it. Maybe it makes other people happy. Maybe someday it’ll make you happy when you get another device. Maybe it’ll never make you happy. Doesn’t matter. It is what it is.

Sometimes understanding why just doesn’t help.

Do ask “Why?” out of curiosity

I don’t want to make it seem like you should never ask why. “Why?” is an important question when you’re curious. When you’re trying to learn how things work, the question “Why?” is often an important step to understanding something in order to make better use of it.

A genuine “Why?” often uncovers rationales that can help you make sense of how things are connected and how things relate.

When you ask “Why?” in an attempt to learn something, it may occasionally be out of momentary frustration, but you’re genuinely interested in the answer.

On the other hand, asking “Why?” out of pure frustration because you encounter something you don’t like is rarely an educational or helpful experience.

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36 comments on “Why Ask Why?”

  1. Based on my experience with a well-known company (which went out of business due to its well attested short-sightedness), it’s because the company made REALLY STUPID business decisions that went in the wrong direction at the wrong time. Companies get complacent, run out of ideas, don’t anticipate trends, underestimate competition, etc. It happens all the time. So if you find yourself asking “Why?” it may be time to turn to another company’s product or technology, or simply bite the bullet and learn a new technology. The alternative is to go down, crying and moaning, with the ship you’re currently riding on.

  2. Why? isn’t the the question anymore, nor is there any real altenative for many of us.

    it’s more like leave it alone, you’re just making new problems and we don’t care anymore.

    The industry has become it’s own antithesis.

    Like making me put pollution controls on my bicycle, more orr less.

  3. Thanks, Leo for providing insightful prospective on the question of asking, “Why”. I understand. So what do I do with a 2002 Dell 1520 computer that is clean and in good working condition if I buy a new machine with Windows 8.1? How do I recycle this lovely machine ( a gift from my children)? Should I hold onto it to experiment with the alternatives?

  4. Generally speaking, I never accept the answer “because it’s better” without qualification. If it’s better then “how” is it better? Without getting into the argument as to whether or not Windows 8.x is better than Windows 7 I’ll just say that on all of the forums that have discussed this topic to death, in terms of the actual user interface, nobody has ever been able to answer the question, “how is it better?”.

  5. Probably the most common Why? question in people’s minds today is “Why did Microsoft take away the Start Button and give us the Tiles interface instead?” I’ve come up with a speculative answer. I think they wanted to introduce people to the Microsoft RT world. They hoped people would get used to that interface then want to buy Windows phones and tablets. This would also create a market for the Windows store to be able compete with Google Play and iTunes. I believe what set Apple apart in this aspect was that Steve Jobs had the insight to understand how the average consumer would react to his products. This is a very rare talent.

    • Microsoft has always wanted a unified user interface across all of its offerings – that’s actually nothing new. (For example there was a start menu on old Windows CE based devices if I recall correctly.) What was rare this time around is that they changed their flagship product, Windows, to try to make it happen. I’m of the opinion that different devices require different – sometimes radically different – interfaces. Portable devices don’t need start menus, desktops do.

      • To Me another why, is why did they introduce the name, I think it was a really stupid idea, as most of you will know the constant comparison with outlook for office suite, is so frustrating. I am often having to educate people that they are totally different. Surely a much better name could be this could have killed the confusion immediately.

  6. Contacting any company asking why something was changed will often cause the recipient to give some off the cuff answer that in many (or most) cases leave the questioner no better off and quite probably confused.

    Having said that, it’s very productive for consumers with dislikes, problems or a ton of ‘Why” questions to contact the company. I was asked recently “why” even bother with that. If consumers do not frame accurate, to the point and direct proper concerns to the company they will continue down whatever path they have chosen for whatever reason never knowing that their most important business concern, the consumer, is unhappy, confused or very likely to find a substitute item of equipment!

    If you’re truly unhappy or concerned about something don’t continue to use it, find something else, return it for a refund or take whatever action makes you happy. Life is far too short to sit around unhappy, unable to get something to work the way you want it to work or just not working period.

    By the way if you’re not a computer engineer, a programmer or some other flavor of “computer expert” (like I’m not) the answer to many why questions would be far to complicated to do us any good. Venting may feel good but it usually doesn’t do much good. I know because I’ve done a lot of venting.

  7. Here’s my theory of “Why”. In a previous comment, I said “I believe what set Apple apart in this aspect was that Steve Jobs had the insight to understand how the average consumer would react to his products. This is a very rare talent.” It seems like most software engineers just don’t have that insight.

    Software designers: Be like Steve.

    • Absolutely right that software developers don’t have a clear appreciation of product usage, the customer or business issues of their company. That’s especially true of younger/new developers whose primary focus is on the lines of code, not the product. Without adult supervision the typical software person will want to change the code as soon as it’s done and works. Change it because they think they can do it “better”, faster, more elegantly, with fewer lines of code, better than the other developer sitting next to them, or because they just heard about a new trend, tool, or method. These examples for change are not exaggerations and I classify them as “change for the sake of change”. So, when you ask why did the software change, it may very well be for some trivial and juvenile impulse. The response to this type of a “why” question is “… well because.”

      • Requiring bright young code-jockeys to spend part of their induction & training period manning front-line customer support lines (under adult supervision!) can help moderate the juvenile impulses somewhat.

  8. My opinion is that the answer to “Why?” is that someone new is in charge. The new boss, or company, or owner has the irresistible urge to change something. So they do that, whether or not the change is for the better. Unfortunately, change for the sake of change is rarely for the better.

  9. Agreed. In my 40 years of experience in IT as a developer and a database administrator, every new boss has to make their mark on the organisation by urinating on their new street light before acquiring real insight into what the organisation actually does. Holders of Master of Business Administrator qualifications seem to be particularly vulnerable to this form of self-deception. The consequence of personal ego can include incredible expense and disruption to the organisation.

  10. I recently had an experience that left me scratching my head. The remote for my cable box gave up the ghost. After chatting with tech support they mailed me a new remote along with instructions on how to pair it with my existing equipment. To wit:

    1. Press the mic button on your remote until the menu is displayed on your TV

    2. Follow the menu instructions to complete the pairing

    The problem is that in order to select options and navigate the menu you require a fully working remote, i.e. one that has already been paired.

    After getting back into another chat session with tech support I was told:

    1: Press the menu and info buttons on the remote for five seconds

    2. The remote LED will change from red to green

    3. A three digit code will appear on your TV

    4. Punch that code into your remote

    These instructions should have been included with the remote, not the ones that did not/could not work,

    So, why?

    • Rev,

      A great big THANK YOU for discussing your problem with your remote.

      Last night my wife and I were dismayed to find that we could not change channels, get saved recorded programs, etc. We pushed every button on the remote to no avail.

      After I read your message this afternoon, I went into the den and tried the “two-button Tango” on our remote for that set (a big new Samsung hooked to Comcast/Xfinity). I pushed the “Xfinity” button and the “I” button together, counted to three and, voila, success. Apparently, the remote/tv set pairing went kaput, and your simple procedure fixed it.

      I usually call Comcast/Xfinity as a last resort because I am just Geekie enough to know that I probably know about as much as they do without having a script or tech manuals to follow.

      Stay healthy!

  11. My father – during my childhood, advised me that the strongest question was “Why?” and to keep asking it until you get a satisfactory answer. From whoever.

  12. This is helpful when I get so frustrated that Evernote 10 still doesn’t meet my needs (e.g. constant errors with PDF files), the older Evernote still has bugs that probably won’t ever be fixed, and yet so much of my work and person life depend on Evernote

  13. Thank you Leo!! I have shared a number of your articles with people who seem to think I am an IT guy (which I definitely am NOT!) and tried to train them to subscribe to your newsletter and come here directly.

    But now, I have a terrific philosophical answer for a whole bunch more folks:

    “Searching for a “Why?” out of frustration is energy wasted.

    To get all Zen for a moment, it is what it is.

    Getting frustrated, demanding to know why, or even understanding why isn’t going to change any of that. You don’t have to like it, but it’s probably best to simply accept whatever it is for what it is and make decisions accordingly.”


  14. Hey Tom, didn’t you read Leo’s article? He said in essence, that “it is what it is and you can’t change it so don’t worry about it”.

  15. I tend to take things as they come. When I ask “Why?”, it is because I want to understand how something works and NEVER about why someone made some frustrating change/decision. When an app/program/OS is changed in a manner I can/will-not live with, I consider making a change. I agree, getting frustrated over changes in software (etc.) is a waste of time. I can find many similar apps to replace anything I use on a regular basis, and experience tells me that the replacement may serve my needs better than what I was previously using. This was true for me when I switched from Word (Microsoft Office 10) to LibreOffice Writer for word processing, and more recently from SUMo to Patch my PC to get software update notifications. My suggestion is that id some program gets changed in a manner that makes it less useful to you, look for an alternative. If, when you uninstall the previous app to replace it with an alternative you have found, you are asked to answer a survey about why you are removing the software, do so, and tell the developers why you are making a change. Perhaps, if enough users follow suite, they will fix/undo whatever they did to alienate so many users (not likely, but you never know).



  16. I recently had a “why” moment – and when I researched the problem, I found out that the answer was actually a good one. It didn’t apply to me, but I understood the reason, and became less frustrated. Thanks to the discussion on the forum, the developers made the original configuration an option on the next update. I don’t think a “why” – even in frustration – is necessarily bad, it’s just unproductive to get hung-up in the anger.

  17. Just a little thing: you posted “The haitus continues.”

    That word is “hiatus” not haitus…

    Don’t want your excellent work to look as bad as the news media!

  18. I don’t bother asking why anymore because it is mostly change for the sake of change. I just find another way when possible.

    • It’s almost NEVER change for the sake of change. That’s a horrid business model. Most changes have reasons — even if not obvious, or not something you agree with, there are reasons.

      • Leo, you wrote:

        “It’s almost NEVER change for the sake of change. That’s a horrid business model.”

        Oh, I get it! Businesses never, ever have horrid business models!


        • Many do. But to ASSUME change for the sake of change is an equally horrid assumption. I’ve not yet seen it to be accurate, even once. There’s ALWAYS a reason, and the reason is not “change for the sake of change”.

          • The closest I’ve seen to change for the sake of change are changes to make the interface “prettier”. Kind of like what they did in Vista. There were changes under the hood, but the esthetic changes were horrendous.

          • And yet the reason was NOT “change for the sake of change” — the reason was more along the lines of “Let’s make Windows easier to use, and compete more strongly against competitors”. They were WRONG, but there was a reason.

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