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Why Ask Why?

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 at all.

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

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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? Ultimately, those questions are merely 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 it is 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, asking “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.

Why? 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 they simply don’t want to share the truth, and give us some “corporate line” about why a specific change was made the way it was.

A company might say they made a change because their tests revealed it was better, stronger, faster, or whatever. 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), or about unifying some underlying technology (rarely a selling point), or about 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 for whatever reason.”

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 that you don’t like is rarely a learning or helpful experience.

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Posted: December 12, 2019 in: Leo's blog
This is an update to an article originally posted February 24, 2014
Shortlink: https://askleo.com/13312
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15 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.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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?

    Reply
    • There are many places to donate a working used computer. Or you can consider this your opportunity to play with Linux. That’s what I plan to do. I’m converting my old XP machine into a Linux OS home entertainment system.

      Reply
  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?”.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
    • 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.

      Reply
      • To Me another why, is why did they introduce the outlook.com 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 msmail.com. this could have killed the confusion immediately.

        Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply
    • 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.”

      Reply
      • 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.

        Reply
  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.

    Reply
  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.

    Reply

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