Andreas Weigend | Social Data Revolution | Fall 2016
School of Information | University of California at Berkeley | INFO 290A

What Makes A Good Question?

Contributor: Jenny Li
Audio: sdr2016topic10.mp3

"The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge."
- Thomas Berger, American Novelist

Why do we feel the need to ask questions and the urge to answer questions posed by others? What do the kinds of questions we ask say about ourselves? How do they affect our relationships with others? What makes a good question? In Topic 10, we explored these topics in the context of a presentation by Ming Yeow Ng, who, along with Ben Chow, co-founded the audio Q&A app Minute. The following sections highlight main points from his talk, "The Human Experience: Why questions lie at the heart of social data".

The Power of Questions

Questions Frame

Being asked a question is extremely effective in framing the way we think about a topic - because of our instinctive desire to answer questions, our brains automatically turn to consider the inquiry being posed. One of the more formidable examples of how questioning can be used as a manipulation tactic occurs in multilevel marketing. Those who participate in the controversial strategy will often ask people they are trying to recruit questions like: "Are you satisfied with the amount of money you make now?". Their questions make you question yourself, putting you in a position of doubt about your own level of success. The way these questions are propositioned also make it seem like they genuinely care about you and your lifestyle, which further appeals to the emotional aspect of your interaction. In this way, questions can be deeply persuasive; they have the ability to put us into a particular mindset almost immediately.

Questions Bond

The more vulnerable we are in a conversation with another person, the more connected we feel with that individual. Often, it's the questions that cause the most discomfort that form a greater bond. Look no further than "To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This" , the viral article published by the Modern Love section of the New York Times in early 2015. The author, Mandy Len Catron, describes how she and an acquaintance applied the methodology of psychologist Arthur Aron and actually did end up falling in love. In addition to staring into each other's eyes for four minutes, the procedure involves the couple taking turns asking each other a total of 36 questions. Included in the set of questions are:
  • Would you like to be famous? In what way?
  • When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
  • What is your most treasured memory?
  • What is your most terrible memory?
  • Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.

36 Questions That Make Strangers Fall In Love (The LAB) - AsapSCIENCE

Catron does note that "it’s hard to credit the study entirely" for her results but that the activity did "generate trust and intimacy". Not only does the act of asking questions show that we are interested in someone, but the mutual process of asking and answering questions is how we relate to others on a more intimate level.

Questions Spawn

A result of a good question is that it will ignite more questions, and a sign of an experienced interviewer is asking increasingly better questions as the conversation progresses.

Questions Lead

Questions can steer us toward new perspectives and conclusions, as a brainstorming activity or therapy session might trigger.

Social Media and Q&A Platforms

When creating a Q&A platform today, it's important to consider why people ask and answer questions. As Ming discussed, the reasons people ask questions can be broken down into four distinct categories: investigate, stimulate, persuade, and connect. As for answering questions, people will respond as a result of tangible rewards, attention or approval, or just because it's an innate response. Another theory is that through communicating questions and answers, we learn about ourselves. Ming proposes that when someone asks you a question, it's likely that you are just as curious to know the answer because you might not have ever contemplated the question on your own before. Today's personality tests indicate that this may be true, as their results tend to focus on the crux of the question "What am I to others?"

Social Applications

Apps code human behavior, and social apps specifically operate on a cycle of invoking, triggering, and sharing. Their questions are implicit in how the user experiences the app. For example, the question an Instagram user asks before posting an image might be "Does this make me look good to my friends" or, on Facebook, "Does this make me look like a well functioning human being?".

Although Q&A platforms may also be considered social applications, they are more focused on facilitating explicit questions. Prior to creating Minute, Ming Yeow worked on a startup called Dailymuses, a Q&A service whose tagline includes the phrase "Everyone is fascinating in their own way", where people could share deeply personal life stories. Even sites like Twitter, where Q&A is not the main focus can generate the sharing of experiences through hashtags.

An answer expressed in less than 140 characters by Twitter user @305Pirate, as prompted by Jimmy Fallon's request for stories using the hashtag #HowIGotFired

Creating a Q&A Application

In designing a Q&A app, four main factors should be considered. The first is the conversation space, or the framework in which questions and answers are exchanged. Conversation spaces can focus on a person (I am Barack Obama, President of the United States -- AMA), a topic (What is it like to study EECS at Berkeley?), or an answer (Why is “Pokémon” written with an accent?).

Identity is also an important aspect of a Q&A application and the granularity of identity can fall into one of three categories: anonymous, pseudonymous, or full identity. Reactions to questions might differ depending on the which of these is implemented. For example, a site using full anonymous identity might prompt people to be more open and raw in their answers, since they know their responses are unlikely to be linked to their identity in real life. With the other extreme, a full identity can provide a level of credibility to the users. Sites like Reddit opt for the pseudonymous option, where an individual creates a username and possesses an online identity but does not have to associate their account with their offline identity. This allows for continued interaction between users while maintaining some anonymity if desired.

The medium through which questions and answers are communicated also plays a significant role in how users interact with each other. Q&A platforms have traditionally used either text or video, and Minute is unique in that it only employs audio for answering questions. Ming suggests that this makes the interaction between the question-asker and the question-answerer more personal and allows the latter to be more expressive in his or her response.

A question asked by Brendan to Ming on the Minute app

Finally, the objectivity of the platform determines what the users get out of asking and answering each other's questions. An application like is personal, whereas questions on Quora are subjective, and sites like Stackoverflow are typically more concerned with getting a correct answer.

Lastly, Ming introduced the rapid decision making framework for users, noting the necessity of balancing all four sections - reward, cost, lottery, and risk - in order to create a successful app.

User's Rapid Decision Making Framework


Ultimately, learning is not a push business - it's a pull business. Getting an answer without knowing the question affects us differently than when we have a question and get an answer. Asking questions is integral to human nature, and we do so whether it's to satisfy our curiosity or increase our bond with another person. Good questions are beneficial not only in the sense that they can lead to an answer but also because they can improve our interaction with the rest of the community by stimulating ideas and deepening intimacy.