One of the most common ways a business analyst gathers details of the current state is to “interview” individual business people or users. I often find the best place to do this is at their desk. Having all their stuff around them helps them to recall all the different tasks they do during the day. However it may be impractical to do this sometimes because it may be a noisy environment or their phone does not stop ringing!
Text books refer to the concept of “open” or “closed” questions. Its worth looking this up and getting a good understanding of this concept. Put simply though, avoid putting words in people’s mouths. Even if you have a really good understanding of the area you are looking at let the interviewee tell you about it. There is always something new.
Here are some of the most common questions I use
- What’s the first thing do you do when you get in in the morning?
- Talk me through your typical day
These first two questions are vital. The answer to these provides a framework for all other questions, it gives you an idea of scope so you can manage your time with the person and not dwell on a single aspect for too long, as a bonus they also give you a nice relaxed start to the interview. The rest of the questions below flow and build on these first two.
- What can go wrong?
- What would you change?
- What house keeping or special tasks do you do?
- Where does your work come from?
- What happens to the work after you have done it?
- Does anyone have to check aspects of your work?
- What systems do you use and why?
Now these are still only openers. Depending on the answer you will follow up with more specific questions. One of the business analysis techniques I like to use is called the Five Whys.
Basically it’s a method for getting to the root cause of an issue. Here’s an example.
- Deliveries are late to a particular customer – why?
- Manufacturing dept are always out of stock of this item. It’s an item only this single customer orders – why?
- The older machine that makes this part keeps breaking – why?
- Maintenance is behind schedule on that machine – why?
- Lack of trained staff on older machines – why?
If you keep asking why you will get to the root of the problem. In the example above it would have been possible to think “well this is only a problem affecting one customer it’s their fault somehow”, or maybe you could have got the impression “it’s a stock control issue”. And so on. Therefore never assume anything and never be afraid of asking a silly question. Often they are not! Later on in the requirements phase we can check back to the findings above to ensure the right problems are being addressed.
Obviously asking questions is only half the job. Remembering what was said is the other half! That’s where taking good notes is important. As I am jotting info down in the interview I am already thinking about what the output may look like. Sometimes a process is easier to remember if I actually write the individual steps in a numbered list, or sometimes a crude flow chart is in order. Maybe a rich picture or even a mind map.
I find when I am writing process steps new questions come to mind. Gaps may stand out in the process, where we haven’t talked about something and this leads to more questions. And so we come full circle.
After the interview I often write up my notes, maybe in PowerPoint (so I can use a mixture or text, lists, diagrams, etc) and ask the person I interviewed to check I understood things correctly. This isn’t always necessary but in completely new or unfamiliar areas this is good practice.