The 5 Ws are a set of five questions you can use to create a project framework or set goals for your product team.
As a product manager, you need to understand every aspect of your product—from why it exists to who it impacts. The 5 Ws are a simple framework for helping you do this. Answering these 5 questions is a great tool to see the bigger picture of your product and guide your development process. Once you understand the big picture like this, you can set clear goals, and then get into the nitty-gritty of how to achieve them.
In this glossary entry, we look at the 5 Ws and how they can help you determine a project framework, determine your goals, and then achieve them.
Table of contents
What Are the 5 Ws?
The 5 Ws are a set of five questions you can use to gather information, create a project framework, or set goals for your product development sprints. These questions are: Who, What, Where, When, and Why. Some teams also add an additional H, for How.
Answering these questions helps a product manager establish the basic rationale behind a product or feature so that you can create more compelling product stories.
The 5 Ws actually have a surprisingly long provenance of use in inquiry, going back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle. They survived over the centuries in various forms. For example, journalists often use the 5 Ws to make sure they’re covering the five key parts of a story in the opening paragraph of their article.
In the same way, product developers can answer these questions at the outset of a project to make sure they’re covering all their bases when bringing a new product to market, or when making updates to an existing product.
When and Why Should You Use the 5 Ws?
The 5 Ws (and optional H) are used in a lot of different stages and by a lot of departments. For one, they are helpful for your marketing team in identifying your target audience. In product development more specifically, they come in near the tail end of the ideation stage and as part of the idea screening stages of the product development process.
Your precise process may vary, but answering the 5 Ws helps in both of those stages. Going through the 5 Ws lets you establish which ideas are necessary, and of the ones that you’ve chosen, which ones are viable.
Of course, this isn’t a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ type of situation. For the answers to be useful, you need to write something more substantial. Strong, factual answers to the 5 Ws will keep your development process grounded.
Now, this is just a framework to help guide your product development process. You can tailor it to your needs, but we suggest answering each question to get the best value from it. That said, there are generally some best practices, like starting with Why and ending with How.
Let’s take a look at each of the 5Ws and some examples of how to implement them.
What Do the 5 Ws Look Like in Action?
The 5 Ws are a simple framework you can use to understand the big picture and clarify your business goals. This will help guide your process and ensure you’re on the right track.
Before you get to the features or target audience, you need to know the Why behind your product. Everything has a reason—especially when you’re launching a new product. You can’t just make something new because you want to; it needs to have a purpose.
The answer should dive deep into the benefits of the product and the problems it aims to solve. If you aren’t addressing your customer’s needs, then no one will resonate with it and it won’t perform as well. When you answer this, you’ll have a better chance of success when the time comes to launch.
Questions to ask:
- Why are you developing a new product?
- Is there an existing or predicted need that your product fulfils, and what is it?
- Why would a customer choose your product to fill that need?
After you’ve defined the reason and need for the product, you can then consider the features of your product. The What question is where you define what your product is and how it solves the problems you identified previously in the Why. This is also where you address how you differentiate yourself from other products on the market.
For example, when Instagram came on the scene, it was purely a photo-sharing app. Over time, their model has changed, but in the beginning, they clearly identified their features. That helped them compete with other social media giants like Facebook and Twitter.
Questions to ask:
- What is your product?
- What needs does it meet?
- What are the key features it needs to include to deliver its intended benefit to your customer?
Any solution needs people to execute it, and your product will also affect the people using it. Answering the Who question helps you hone in on your target market by creating customer profiles or buyer personas.
Beyond that, it also helps you organize your team. It could even help you identify any skill gaps you have which need to be addressed in order to execute your idea.
Questions to ask:
- On your team’s end, who fills which role?
- Who is managing the team and delegating tasks?
- On the customer end, who is your target market?
Define your locations, both on the development end and the customer end. This may include where your factory is located if it’s a physical product. It may also address where your stakeholders are concentrated and which other markets you plan to expand into in the future.
This can also cover the types of marketing channels or distribution channels you’ll be using to get the word out about your product, connect with customers, and deliver the final product to them.
Questions to ask:
- Where are you developing your product?
- Where do you intend to release it first?
- Where will customers purchase it?
At this point, you need to look at your timeline and make sure it’s achievable. If you’re rushing, then you could launch a product with problems like Samsung’s ‘explosive’ Galaxy Note 7 Phone, putting your reputation at risk. On the other hand, if you take too long, competitors might be first-to-market with their own product.
In both cases, your profits and performance are both at risk. To avoid these problems, make sure you are implementing prioritization strategies to keep organized and on task.
Questions to ask:
- When do you plan to finish development?
- When do you need to deliver the product?
Once you have addressed all the W questions, you can move on to the How. This is where all the previous questions come together. Now, you can combine all your answers into a concrete and coherent plan of action for your product development.
Having reviewed all the answers above, you should now see how these pieces fit together. You can then ask yourself:
- How do you plan to fulfill all of your goals with these answers?
Ask The Right Questions To Start
It is important to never lose sight of the big picture and having the 5 Ws to define those goals which will help you achieve that. Armed with the answers to the 5 Ws, you can ensure that the relevant details have been addressed and you’re creating a successful product when you finally go to market.