Ask users: “why would it be a problem if this site or service didn’t exist?”


This is now our favourite question to ask during our Discovery phase user interviews on existing websites and digital services.

It might sound a bit heavy to question the very existence of a website or service. Maybe it seems self evident that it should exist, and something of a dumb question, but it is actually very revealing when you start to ask enough people.

Tip: ask service owners and organisation stakeholders the same question and see what they say.

I started to include this “armageddon scenario” question in interviews and workshops a few years ago after I became a little obsessive about the 5 Whys technique. I wanted to find a way of really drilling down to the stuff that actually matters to users (and stakeholders).

It is actually quite a confrontational and pointed question but makes users sit back and evaluate what’s most important to them (if anything!). Perhaps the service doesn’t really need to exist, or just a very small part of it. And that of course is no bad thing if we are genuine about designing for user need.

In recent projects we have had some really powerful and insightful responses from users to this question:

“Well… [long pause]… I’m not actually sure if it would be a problem for me because I would just get that info from colleagues or from other sites I use.”

“Because I wouldn’t be able to get my masters degree if it [the service] didn’t exist.”

“I trust the statistics I get from this site and look to it as the source of truth. I would have less confidence if I had to get these stats from other sources.”


We believe it is good, actually critical, for clients to hear if their service isn’t as needed as they assumed (or hoped), or more importantly to hear which bit/s of their service users actually need.

We usually find ourselves making recommendations to strip away all the other stuff to make an even better job of the bit/s users truly need.

It can of course be hard for a service owner to hear and accept that the content pages or tools they have been working hard on are not actually needed – that can be demoralising and even threatening to job security.

It may also be at odds with the organisation’s objectives:

“But we want our users to do X [even if they are saying they need to do Y].”

But we are in the user needs business so it must be said.


We listen carefully to the answer to this question and translate the problem into need/s to capture in our user needs log. We also look for patterns in the answers.

We are then ready to validate these needs with a larger number of users in the next stage of the Discovery.


Give it a go the next time you are with a user of your website or service:

Why would it be a problem for you if this website / service didn’t exist?

And ask your colleagues too.

Just be ready for some interesting conversations.

Related Case Studies

Discovery about road freight data for the Department for Transport

A project to understand and help make decisions about the methods used to collect road freight statistics.

Discovery about improving workforce data sets for Skills for Care

We ran a discovery on the National Minimum Data Set - the leading source of adult social care workforce information in England

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