“What to Build” vs. “How to Build It”

I’ve been thinking lately about how UX is usually brought in to answer “how will we build it?” questions, but not “what will we build?” questions.

“What will we build?” questions deal with the matter of finding out what users’ needs are and connecting those needs to something the business can actually do. Getting the right answer to this question means that the organization doesn’t spend a bunch of time building the wrong thing—building something that, no matter how well designed, doesn’t meet anyone’s needs. The user experience field offers some great tools for learning about users and answering the question of “what will we build?”

Of course, this question is usually answered long before UX is involved.

Instead, we’re usually involved at the point of “how will we build it?” This question assumes the matter of what to build is already settled, and instead all that’s left to do is figure out what the design should be. UX can offer value here, obviously. The problem is that we’re usually pigeonholed into answering only that question, even when it turns out that we’re working on a feature that should never be built because the design problem was framed wrong from the beginning.

The effort to push UX earlier into the design process is an effort to get closer to the “what will we build?” question, but part of the problem we face is that there are already people who “own” that question, and our effort to provide more value can look like a challenge to them.

I’m not sure what to do about this, yet, though. Just pondering it.