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The 5 Ws: how to think like an analyst



Image: Kaleidico

When an analyst is asked to analyze a problem, they will systematically follow a set of standard steps. This allows them to define an appropriate solution.

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.

An analyst 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:

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.


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.