September 30, 2023

Laddering Technique and 5 Why's

It is one of the most powerful tools to understand deep customer reasoning.
Laddering Technique and 5 Why's

The laddering method is a qualitative research technique used to uncover the underlying motivations or values behind consumers' purchase decisions and preferences. The technique is based on the principle that consumers' choices can often be traced back to deeper, more personal reasons than initially apparent.

According to Means End Chain Theory, purchasing decisions are made based on a hierarchy of perceptions, and these relate to different levels of conscious consideration and different aspects of the interaction between the decision maker and the product or service. These are known as “Attributes”, “Consequences” and “Values”.

Laddering involves conducting in-depth, one-on-one interviews where the interviewer aims to delve deeper into the respondent's psyche by repeatedly asking "why" questions. The goal is to move from the specific attribute or feature of a product to the personal values or emotional rewards that drive a consumer's decision.


The process typically involves three main levels:

  1. Attributes: This is the tangible feature or characteristic of a product or service. For example, a car might have an attribute of being fuel-efficient.
  2. Functional Benefit (Consequences): This level describes the advantage or practical benefit that the attribute delivers. For the car example, the functional benefit of being fuel-efficient is saving money on fuel.
  3. Emotional Benefit/Personal Value (Values): This is the deeper, emotional reason behind the consumer's choice or preference. Using the car example, the emotional benefit or personal value might be a sense of responsibility towards the environment or the peace of mind from knowing they are making a frugal decision.
Laddering technique levels
Steps of ladder

By climbing this ladder from attribute to personal value, researchers can uncover the core motivations behind consumers' choices, allowing brands to communicate more effectively and design products that better align with consumers' true desires.

In practice, laddering for this example might look like this:

  • Interviewer: "I noticed you chose the fuel-efficient car. Why did you choose that one?"
  • Respondent: "I wanted to save money on gas."
  • Interviewer: "Why is saving money on gas important to you?"
  • Respondent: "It helps me budget better and spend on other things I value."
  • Interviewer: "Why is that ability to budget and choose where to spend important?"
  • Respondent: "It gives me a sense of control and freedom in my life."

Applying this process to market research helps us to gather a more complete list of “consequences” and climb towards the hard-to-reach “values”. These “values” are the most useful tools for predicting behavior and identifying potential new opportunities.The core of the laddering framework as applied to market research consists of the following series of questions:

“Why did you choose this product/service?” – to establish the important attributes

“Why is it good/bad that…?” – to establish the consequences of each attribute

“Why is this important to you/your business?” or “How does this relate to your core business values?” – to establish the values of the respondent which are affected by each consequence

The first question identifies the “attributes”, the second is asked about each attribute to identify that attribute’s “consequences”, and the third attempts to draw out the underlying business needs and motivations or “values” that these consequences impact upon.

Limitations of laddering

This is a proven technique in consumer studies but it has a number of drawbacks:

  • The number of questions which it generates can be large, and the process of repeatedly asking someone why can seem childish and boring. With this in mind it is essential that you explain the theory behind the technique to the respondent before beginning the questioning.
  • Answering the later questions can be difficult. Not everyone will be able to do so, and attempting to force an answer is counterproductive.
  • Recording responses can be complicated, so care should be taken in preparing for and conducting the questioning.
  • The technique is designed to help people examine their actions and experiences. It is not suitable for investigating hypothetical decisions; people will often find it difficult to answer and answers will be less reliable.

5 Why's method

5 why method is almost the same as laddering, except that it is used in finding root cause during error analysis. lets look in more details:

The "5 Whys" method is a problem-solving technique that seeks to identify the root cause of a problem by repeatedly asking the question "Why?" five times. By doing so, the method aims to drill down into the details of an issue and uncover its underlying cause. Taiichi Ohno, the architect of the Toyota Production System, one of the fathers of Lean Manufacturing, is credited with popularizing this technique, and it's a foundational element of Lean management and problem-solving.

Here's how it works:

  1. State the Problem: Begin with a clear and concise statement of the problem.
  2. Ask Why the Problem Happened: Start with the problem and ask "Why?" to identify what caused it.
  3. Repeat for Each Answer: For the answer given, ask "Why?" again to drill deeper into the issue.
  4. Continue Until the Root Cause is Identified: Typically, you'll do this five times (hence the name "5 Whys"), but in practice, it might take fewer or more than five questions to get to the root cause.
  5. Implement Solutions: Once the root cause is identified, develop corrective measures to prevent the problem from recurring.

Example:Let's use an example to illustrate the method:

Problem: The vehicle won't start.

  1. Why? The battery is dead.
  2. Why? The alternator is not functioning.
  3. Why? The alternator belt has broken.
  4. Why? The belt was well beyond its useful service life and not replaced.
  5. Why? The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule.

Root Cause: The vehicle was not maintained according to the recommended service schedule.

Solution: Implement a regular maintenance schedule and replace parts as recommended.

Advantages of 5 why's:

  1. Simple and straightforward: No need for statistical analysis.
  2. Promotes deeper thinking and understanding of problems.
  3. Can be used in various settings, from manufacturing to software development.


Now you're familiar with the laddering technique and the 5 Whys method. While laddering is predominantly utilized in Product Management and Marketing, the 5 Whys is a staple in the realm of process improvement. Grasping both methods empowers you to select the most fitting approach based on the challenge at hand.

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