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Build a greater understanding of your problem and the people it impacts.

Five whys


An iterative process for identifying the root cause of a problem by posing the question “Why?” at least five times to help separate symptoms from causes.


To identify the root cause(s) of an issue or problem.

Time required

Less than 1 hour

How to do it

Select a particular issue or problem from your user research to investigate further. This could be the most commonly occurring problem or a problem that has been prioritized by the team. Ask why the problem occurred and write down an answer. Repeat this process another four times, building off of the previous response each time to drill down to a root cause. As you probe, make sure you remain sensistive to the emotional response of the interviewee. Sometimes asking why multiple times can cause the interviewee to feel frustrated or defensive if they don’t feel as if they are being heard. See example below:

Starting problem: “We didn’t meet our goal for public feedback during the open comment period.”

  1. Why?
    “Not enough people submitted comments.”
  2. Why?
    “Not enough people made it to the comment submission form.”
  3. Why?
    “The comment submission form was hard to find.”
  4. Why?
    “The link to the comment submission form was buried on the page.”
  5. Why?
    “We didn’t formulate and publish a call to action to submit comments.”

After getting to a root cause, frame or reframe your problem solving approach to address it (e.g., “how might we create a call to action for comment submission?”).

Note: You may ask “why” more or less than five times during this process. The purpose of this exercise is to help identify what is the root cause. Ask “why” as many times as needed to get to what you think the root cause is, while keeping the mental cost of the interviewee in mind.

Considerations for use in government

No PRA implications. No information is collected from members of the public.


18F Methods

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