The Art of Asking Questions

I was born inquisitive. It cannot be helped. My daughter is the same way. Is it a learned trait or is coded in our DNA? The highest compliment I received from a cultural anthropology professor was that I had a mind of an ethnographer (a person who studies other cultures and tries to explain why people in a society do what they do).

For example, two months ago my car broke down and I spent about 2 hours on the side of the road waiting for the tow truck driver to arrive. During that time I was texting back and forth with a friend. He had a very valid question, “Why don’t we see any female tow truck drivers?” When my towing savior arrived, I went about interviewing him on that very topic. I found out the physical rigors of the job did not appeal to most women and the two in town that did were 6 foot 4 inches and built like Brunhilde from one of the classic Wagnerian operas.

However, there are times when asking the right questions or should I say coaxing out the needed answers can be difficult. I encountered this with my second place of post graduate school employment. I worked for a Fortune 500 company where I, as a GIS analyst, had corporate and division clients. I discovered that many people that make a map request have a vague idea of what they want. Let me emphasize the word vague. It could be compared to a realtor’s worst nightmare when the client says, “I’ll know it when I see it”.

Here are some questions to keep in mind:
• When is the deliverable due? Eighty percent of the time, the person needed it yesterday.
• Where should it go in your priority task list? (Either top, middle or bottom)
• What does your client want to portray? This discussion is usually rather lengthy and may require several follow up calls.
• What is this going to be used for? A presentation needing a PowerPoint slide, wall size map, or a page in a publication (gray scale or color), etc.

Once you have become familiar with the mindset of a client, it is easier to interpret their mapping and analysis needs and preferences for future projects. For example, there was one fellow that absolutely detested the color pink. So as logic would prevail, I avoided the pink in the color palette, but found that a peach color was deemed acceptable. Never delete a record from the database no matter how insistent the client gets. Explain that you will query the record out so that it does not show up in the final results. Lastly, a word to the wise, keep a copy of all map iterations. The client usually finds that they like the first one the best.

I am currently employed by the Alabama Department of Transportation in an office mostly comprised of left brained traffic and safety engineers. I cannot tell you what a treat it is. They know what they want to see in their mind’s eye and can describe their request in great detail. May all of you GIS folks be as fortunate.

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