07 December 2011

Asking Great Questions – Requirements Elicitation

As part of the elicitation process, it is critical that we ask the right questions. When I hear someone say “The customer doesn’t know what they want,” I tend to cringe. I think the customer knows what they want. They may not know how to express that to us. Our job is to ask the right questions so we can help them explain to us what it is that they want. Sounds simple, right??

Here are some tips to getting to those GREAT (not just good) questions.

1. Keep an inventory of “Great Questions” I believe that successful requirements elicitation interviews begin with preparation. Many analysts think they can just go sit with a user and figure out what they want. That is not the case. Analysts need to research the problem domain and think about the questions they need to ask. The primary difference between expert analysts and novice analysts lies in the ability to recognize situations and apply the proper tools (i.e. questions) that are appropriate for the situation.

Experienced analysts tend to ask similar types of questions – they know they get the best results. When conducting an interview watch for instances where a particular question or specific phrasing of a questions works well in getting you the information you need. When that happens write it down. Add to the list as you become more experienced. Having these questions available makes preparing for interviews quicker. These questions, or versions of them, will server you will for nearly any project. Put them in your “toolbox” of questions.

2. What “points of pain” are we trying to solve? This is a great question for getting to the real business problem. We often get into projects assuming we all understand why we’re doing it. Let’s make sure. Let the user describe the pain he is hoping will be alleviated by this project. I asked a user this one time to have them respond that they had no idea what pain this project was supposed to alleviate. Not a good scenario. An alternative to this question is to ask what user this project need will fill.

3. What would happen if we did not implement this project? This kind of question can help get a feel for the criticality of the project. If the users do not feel it is critical, maybe we should rethink why we are using precious resources at this point in time for this effort.

4. What does success look like to you? This helps you understand the stakeholder’s vision for this project. What is the most important result of this project to you? Consider creating a checklist for success factors and order them in order of importance.

5. Who will benefit most from this project? This will help identify key stakeholders and users. This can provide a starting point for identifying actors for high level use cases or user stories.

6. Close every interview by asking if there is anything else that should be covered. This gives the interviewee an opportunity to express other thoughts or opinions that are important to them. This almost always uncovers a couple of new items of value.

This is just a starting list of potential questions. Add to your own list of great questions and share them with other members of your team. Remember the focus of elicitation is to get to the “essence” of the system – why it exists. Good luck!

By: Marcia Stinson

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