Look down from the basking light of your LCD screen, down there at the lower left of your menu bar to that icon, maybe a blue "e" for Iexplorer, or a fiery fox encircling a blue marble, perhaps a tiny compass to guide you on your safari, and realize that the scope of human knowledge flows so thick through the Internet that we now require a multitude of tools to view it. In the same way that the art of spelling was lost to autocorrect, and our digit span has been diminished by our cell phone's flash memory, the Internet stands to augment our brain's capacity with easy access to the noosphere. Every day the distance between questions and answers shortens by milliseconds, and, while no teacher stands ready to rap our collective knuckles with a ruler in the modern school system, the gulf between the unexamined life and TL;DR gets ever narrower.
So while Messrs. Brin and Page have made a business out of getting us those answers faster, their business plan couldn't be found through the simple call and response of the query field. Their questions had to dig deeper, owing more to the endless tedium of a child's "Why?" than to correlative databases. The central contention behind Warren Berger's A More Beautiful Question, that questions offer more opportunity than facts, should be familiar to any designer who has discovered that loose and sketchy prototypes drive more fruitful conversations than polished finished products. In part, in a world structured to provide the immediate gratification of "answers," the questions often become more meaningful.Berger follows the case study format, framing the business models of companies as diverse as Netflix, AirBNB, and Pandora as "whys" and "what-ifs." Reed Hastings of Netflix wondered, "what if there were no late fees?" and Joe Gebbia of Airbnb wondered "why people leave their apartments empty when they travel to one city" while others do the converse. These thought experiments or mash-ups should already be familiar to most industrial designers, since nearly every "product" could be reframed as the answer to a problem, a question, or perhaps the more familiar term, "needsfinding."
In terms of product design, the death knell is to create a "solution looking for a problem," and the world certainly doesn't need another manufactured widget unless it somehow manages to better a life. The intent is that would-be entrepreneurs focus on exploring problems rather than solutions and questions rather than answers. One could also level against Berger that the world doesn't need another case study book applying design thinking to business development, but something unexpected happens along the way, perhaps because he keeps asking questions as tenaciously as a child. By weaving his narrative from the beginning of life—quoting Alison Gopnik, "Children are the research and development division of the human species"—to actually executing that R&D in the modern world as a business, he serendipitously delves into the most important question of all: How to live.
As readers, the most informative business lesson comes through the counterexample: awkward mis-mash-ups of discordant mission statements like, "Yahoo! is the premier digital media company," are passive voice, vague and flat out wrong. At the same time, while Apple may have managed to rip off both Walt Whitman and echo Dead Poet's Society with its "the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse," well, which vision would you rather have? So when Berger gets to his final section, entitled Questioning for Life, and quotes consultant John Hagel's career advice (appropriately in question form), "When I look back in five years, which of these options will make the better story?" and you, dear reader, find yourself pondering the same, you'll be happy that Berger took his questioning beyond the potential banality of yet another business book and into the things that matter.
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