The 5 Ws: how to think like an analyst

In day-to-day business, we are all often challenged by minor (or sometimes major) problems or issues. To solve these problems and ensure a happy customer or better work environment, it is helpful to put yourself in an analyst’s shoes. This can often help you save time, money, and resources. Here’s how it works.

When an analyst is asked to analyze a problem, they will systematically follow a set of standard steps to be able to define an appropriate solution. The image below shows the high-level steps that are usually followed.

The first step in this process is probably the most important one. As Albert Einstein famously stated, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” 

This focus on “the problem” is a common practice for analysts. This helps to avoid “jumping to the solution”. Jumping to a solution means that a solution is directly selected and executed without prior reflection. This “gut feeling” approach is justifiable in situations where direct action is needed, but in most cases, it is not advisable, since there is a high chance of making the wrong decision. Therefore, from an analyst’s viewpoint, it is necessary to follow a structured problem analysis approach to make sure that the right problem is addressed, and eventually, the best solution is selected.

Problem definition

Asking the right questions is crucial when approaching a problem. The 5 basic questions that you should always ask are commonly known as the “5 Ws”:

  1. What is the problem being experienced?
  2. Who are the stakeholders that experience the problem and will benefit from a solution?
  3. Why does the problem need a solution?
  4. Where or in which context does the problem exist?
  5. When does the problem occur?

Getting a clear and profound answer to these questions will make the definition of a solution much easier.

These questions are quite granular. Unfortunately, this does not mean that they are always answered before a solution is defined and implemented. Certainly the “why” question is forgotten in many cases, with an undesired or unnecessary solution as a result.

This insight is important for digital service companies since their core business is the efficient delivery of digital solutions for the business problems of their customers. Structured problem handling is not only relevant in the early stages of a project, where an analyst is typically involved. The steps described are relevant throughout the full project lifecycle. When a problem needs to be addressed, it is always beneficial to check if there is a clear answer to the Five Ws, regardless the size of the problem that needs to be solved.

Since the analyst is not always involved in every stage of a project, it is important that every member of the team follow this basic approach. The designers, UX specialists, developers, project manager, and more will benefit from this approach.

The importance of problem definition illustrated

A common use case of the Five Ws in digital service companies is the request for a small change to existing functionality. This is usually initiated after the delivery of a project. For example, it may happen after the delivery of a new website.

The implementation of smaller change requests is typically not handled by a full project team, including the analyst. Instead, it is handled by someone on a support team, dedicated to tasks such as these.

A common issue with change requests is that they are typically described as a solution instead of a problem by the requesting party. For example, “Please add an image carousel to the top of the home page.”

In this case the Five Ws can help by doing a quick check to see if the solution is right for the underlying problem.

The value of these questions to evaluate the suggested solutions is clearly illustrated if we try to think about the possible answers that can be given to the “What" and the “Why” question: What problem is being experienced and why do you want to solve it?

Some possible answers could be:

  • There is a problem with the navigation from the homepage to other sections of the website. We need to solve this because it has a negative impact on conversion.
  • There is a problem with the layout of the homepage. Some stakeholders have the feeling that the layout is not up-to-date and lacks visuals. This has a negative impact on the perception of our brand.
  • There is a problem with the dynamicity of the website. The homepage looks too static. This lack of dynamicity does not correspond to the image that we have of our company.
  • The homepage lacks functionality to highlight specific content. We need this to be able to indicate to the vistors of the website what is important for our company on the homepage of the website.
  • There is no problem we want to solve; we just want a carousel because we assume we need it.

Depending on which answer is chosen, the evaluation if the carousel is the right solution for the right problem will have a different outcome.  In some cases, the carousel could be a good solution; for other cases, there are better solutions. It’s also possible that in this case no solution is necessary.

Asking the other Ws will gradually deepen the understanding of the problem.

Conclusion

Understanding the actual problem before implementation is essential. The Five Ws can help to do a check to see if you understand the problem enough before defining a solution. In many cases, it’s just a matter of taking some time to ask these questions and discussing a set of possible solutions with the customer. In other words, the Five Ws should be part of every problem-solving attempt.

Joris Bekaert

Joris Bekaert is Business Consultant at Amplexor, based in Belgium. Specializing in functional analysis and web development, Joris has been part of the Amplexor Digital Experience team since 2007.

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