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Why Ask Why?

I was helping a friend the other day with some Windows 8 issues and a not-uncommon question came up, one that I often dread.


As in, “Why did they do that?”

It’s a common question that gets applied to computers and software of all generations and iterations. Windows 8 has generated a healthy share of why questions, but trust me, it’s nothing new at all.

The problem is that asking why is more often than not an exercise in futility.

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Don’t ask why out of frustration

Faced with something that 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 that they were? What were they thinking? Ultimately, those questions are merely a way to emphasize just how much they disagree with those decisions.

They’re not really looking for an answer.

It’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 that 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 often 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’ll simply refer to as marketing-speak; perhaps you could even say misleading or misdirected marketing-speak, at that.

This happens when the source of our frustration believes that 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 that they made a change because their tests revealed that it was better, stronger, faster, or whatever. In reality, the change was made to further some other agenda. That agenda might be about selling more product (not something that they might want to admit publicly), it might be about unifying some underlying technology (rarely a selling point), or it might be about laying a foundation for some future direction (that they can’t yet admit to for competitive reasons). Or it could be for 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 that they did it.

Make a decision to live with it or seek out alternatives. In either case, move on.

Often, the answer doesn’t help

Sometimes, you can get lucky and actually get an honest answer as to why something is the way it is. And once you know why… you’re exactly where you started. You’re no better off.

“Why did they change the user interface?”

“So that 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, ever 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 – once understood – can help you make sense of how things are connected and how things relate. Knowing that you can do something often make more effective use of whatever those things might be.

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.

7 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?

    • 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.

  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.

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