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The power of the 5 Ws and H in product management

Last updated

17 April 2024


Dovetail Editorial Team

Reviewed by

Mary Mikhail

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Who wouldn’t want to know more? Especially when all you have to do is ask.

Asking a targeted question at the right time can move mountains (or at least move the needle on project goals). However, deciding which questions to ask can be a bit tricky.

Some, driven by keen, inquisitive minds, have a knack for it, while others have to learn. Yet, anyone can radically enhance their information gathering by making the 5 Ws and H framework a part of their product management lexicon.

Solving problems begins with fact-finding

Product managers are responsible for ensuring that each team member is on track and that individual tasks are well-aligned to benefit the project.

While asking questions is a mainstay of good product management, not everyone thinks of it as a skill they can improve. However, brushing up on the fundamentals is an easy way to enhance your inquisitive talents.

What is the 5 Ws and H framework?

The most basic questions revolve around six words, or “seed question words”: the 5 Ws and H. These are necessary or implied in any question.

Here are the 5 Ws and H with example questions:

  • Who: who are your customers?

  • What: what are your biggest product goals?

  • Where: where along the product roadmap are you?

  • Why: why is a given task important for the project’s current phase?

  • When: when do you need to complete your deliverable?

  • How: how will you measure success?

How do you answer a “how” question?

While the 5 Ws and H questions can be wide open, “how” carries special significance in product development. Even though product development can employ several strategies, it’s still important to clarify them.

The following examples should give you a clearer idea of how to provide a helpful response to “how” questions:

  • Naming strategies and resources the team or individual member(s) will rely on

  • Alternative methods available in the event of difficulty

  • Deciding how you’ll measure success

  • Whether given tasks require solo work or collaboration

Where do the 5 Ws and H come from?

Journalism originally developed the 5 Ws and H framework to organize and streamline reporting. Reporters found their work became more comprehensive and left little room for speculation when they sought to answer the six main questions about a given topic.

Similarly, the most common challenges for product managers often arise due to unasked questions. They leave loose ends that may cause wasted or misdirected efforts. It’s always best to define your team’s main problems at the beginning, then routinely check in to assess a chosen strategy’s effects.

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The importance of the 5 Ws and H framework

So, why are the 5 Ws important for product managers when their work is so technical? It’s product management’s complexity that makes it so important for product managers to ensure their team has basic clarity on the fundamental questions, such as:

  • Who is doing what task and why?

  • When is the next project milestone?

  • What are the deliverables team members must focus on?

  • How will the team meet its current goal, and what software or physical resources best suit it?

  • Where can team members find the most up-to-date resources affecting their work?

The questions can be as specific or generic as you want them to be. It’s often best to start general, elaborate, and then go into the answers in greater detail. This stops you from getting lost in the details before you know which are most important.

Applications of the 5 Ws and H framework

Countless 5 W and H examples support greater project success. Asking any of the questions, when relevant, can help encourage collaboration and enable product managers to stay informed.

Like a journalist, a good product manager is naturally curious and watches as circumstances affecting their responsibilities change. When new factors impact development, a product manager should:

  • Engage with the development team and any relevant stakeholders.

  • Understand what happened and its effects.

  • Know which team members are affected.

  • Ask if new conditions will affect developers’ work.

  • Determine how to apply resources differently, if at all.

  • Evaluate the best possible course of action.

  • Anticipate the next foreseeable challenge affecting the project.

  • Report these findings to the team, other managers, or stakeholders as necessary.

When should product managers use the 5 Ws and H technique?

The 5 Ws and H questions are useful whenever product managers need information and know who might be able to provide it. Even if they don’t know who to ask or if the question is open-ended, discussing uncertainties with relevant team members and stakeholders can lead to better, more precise questioning.

Sometimes, even well-framed questions reveal knowledge gaps. The product manager’s increased awareness spurs greater fact-finding efforts.

Often, the “unknown unknowns” are most important, even though they exist just outside conscious awareness. This means essential elements can go unaddressed due to a lack of context. However, by routinely testing the limits of your team’s knowledge, you’re much more likely to reveal less obvious insights.

Advantages of using the 5 Ws and H framework for product managers

Product development depends on being able to extract the best talent from each team member and organize their efforts appropriately. This relies on targeted information exchange. While this may occur in the background, it’s up to product managers to ensure the right information goes where it needs to at the right time.

The 5 Ws and H framework makes this much more manageable. It’s a time-tested way for those tasked with reporting duties to make sure their fact-finding missions are comprehensive and provide actionable insights.

This translates to numerous advantages over less organized approaches. Answering (or at least addressing) each of the 5 Ws and H questions can help product managers do the following:

  • Build better product roadmaps.

  • Assign tasks more effectively.

  • Understand which production obstacles require the most attention.

  • Develop a better user experience (UX) strategy.

  • Integrate workflows more effectively.

  • Assess and strengthen weak points in a team’s knowledge or capacities.

  • Learn what additional research or business tools the team might require.

When should product managers not use the 5 Ws and H framework?

As valuable as the framework can be, don’t ask questions for the sake of it. Facilitating deeper insights often to ensure each team member has relevant answers to their most pressing concerns should be your goal.

Questions are just one way to get there. There are circumstances outside of a product manager’s control that fulfill fact-finding functions independently, and it’s best to simply take note of them without disrupting the process.

Here are some of the drawbacks of focused questioning:

  • Disrupting useful thinking

  • Interfering with a natural collaborative flow between team members

  • Giving the impression you lack effective research and product management tools

  • Creating doubt, if the questions are negative

  • Putting shy employees “on the spot” and making them less receptive

As a product manager, you should have the confidence to admit when you don’t know something and take steps to find the answers. However, your team will often look to you for answers, so they will need to engage in diligent fact-finding.

Fast-paced product development and severe time crunches may stop you from being able to ask employees probing, open-ended questions. In the following circumstances, you might decide not to ask non-mission-critical questions:

  • Experienced teams already exchange information using integrated collaboration tools.

  • Your questions could signal a poor understanding of your market to shareholders.

  • Fast-flowing discussions related to your inner questions occur naturally.

  • It might overburden staff with additional research outside their wheelhouse.

You’ll need to decide carefully when (and when not) to use the 5 Ws and H framework. It’s a matter of discretion. Like any interpersonal or research skill (and this framework is both), restraint can show you are a master of your trade.

How to use the 5 Ws and H framework in product management

Here’s our top-10 list of product management use case examples for the 5 Ws and H framework. In these scenarios, asking the right question simplifies management functions and creates greater value for your team, customers, and overall brand.

  1. Asking support staff about customer expectations

  2. Looking for patterns or redundancies in your development pipeline to save time

  3. Drafting more detailed reports to appease stakeholder interest or even to attract greater investments

  4. Encouraging product development teams to share insights more freely in the future without needing as much prompting

  5. Creating more insightful roadmaps bolstered with product feedback, your net promoter score (NPS), and streamlined analysis tools

  6. Learning which tasks a given team member needs more help with (which is especially useful during onboarding)

  7. Discovering which research and analysis tools are best suited to a given project or task

  8. Leveraging customer insights for more value-adding product features and services

  9. Navigating your team more effectively by learning what challenges affect their work more quickly

  10. Inspiring your team by making sure everyone feels involved, valued, and important

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