Business Analysts Need Creative Questioning for Better Requirements: What Are Your Best Questions?

written by: JT Moore on September 15th, 2010

This post was contributed by ASPE, Inc. instructor Jill E Richards.

As a Business Analyst have you ever asked your customers or end users this question:  “What are your requirements?”  Or have you ever participated in a brainstorming session, where everyone is spilling out requirements one right after the other, while someone frantically tries to take notes?  If so continue reading, this is just for you!  The best Business Analysts know that it takes more creative questions than that to make sure you don’t miss the most important, major requirements.  One of the worst things that can happen on a project is to think you have all of the requirements only to discover, sometimes at the most inopportune time, that you missed something!  UGH!  It’s painful, and I’m sure some of you reading this have been there.  As a Business Analyst for over 15 years I know I have!  I learned early on in my career to get more creative with questions.  I like to tell myself ‘Don’t be a robot.  Don’t ask the routine questions’. Routine questions can sometimes only skim the surface of what the customer really wants. Canned Questions breed canned responses.

No one wants the pain associated with missed requirements, especially the most important ones.  We don’t want to hear:  ‘Why didn’t you think of that?  How could you have missed that?  You are the expert, you should have known!’. So what are we to do?  How do we prevent this from happening?  Well, I’ll give you a couple of my favorite questions that have helped me.  These are questions that I cover in the Business Analyst training courses that I teach, any of my former students should know them well.

  • Often times, at the beginning of a project I will ask the key stakeholders this question (please note that my background is Information Technology, so modify the question for your applicable industry):  “Picture the first week that this new system is live.  It is completed, and your team is using it.  They love it!  It is working so well, it’s doing everything you were hoping for.  It is great.  It is working amazingly well.  You are so glad we did this project for you!  Tell me why.  What is it doing?  Why do you love it so much?  Why is your team so happy?  What problems is it solving, and what opportunities is it creating?  Why is it that great?
  • Then, I will ask key stakeholders a similar question, just in a different way:  “Now I’d like you to once again picture the first week this new system is live.  Keep in mind I’m not trying to panic you, so relax…  But we have to talk about it to be prepared.  It’s the first week with the new system, and it’s a catastrophe! Your team is so frustrated!!  They despise this new system, and wish we never did this project!  Tell me why.  What specific problems are they having?  What are the impacts?  Why is it that terrible?”

The benefits of these two questions are many.  The first question focuses them on the end result early on in the project, which helps to sync the entire team on the goals and objectives.  It also generates many of the most critically important requirements, and any expectations key stakeholders have.  Instead of asking ‘what are your requirements?’ they really start thinking about the end result.  Which is what we want.  After all, we can’t build it if we don’t know what it is!

The second question not only helps to identify the things that they are most worried about, it also starts the Risk Management process.  Listen carefully when you ask these questions, you’ll get an abundance of information.  Don’t be a robot!

So there you have it, I’ve given you two of my favorite questions.  What Creative Questions do you have for soliciting better requirements?  I’d love to hear from you.  So would everyone reading this blog!

This post was contributed by Jill E Richards PMP CSM, an ASPE-SDLC instructor with our Business Analysis curriculum.  Jill is also the founder and president of Inovacent Solutions, LLC a Project Management and Business Analyst consulting and training company (www.inovacent.com).  You can also connect with her on Linkedin.  She has been a featured presenter at international Project Management and Business Analysis conferences, and has been interviewed by several leading Project Management publications for her expertise.

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11 Comments so far ↓

  1. dave wright says:

    They are still open-ended questions. How do you know for sure you have not missed something?

    • Jill Richards says:

      Hi Dave, great point! You are correct, they are open ended questions. They are designed to generate important dialog early on in the project with your key stakeholders. What these questions bring out are the most important requirements for each stakeholder. The things that will make the project successful, and prevent major changes later in the project. It's very difficult to guage if you've missed something. But if you keep your stakeholders at a high level first, then transition to the details, you will minimize the potential for major changes. Small changes typically aren't as problematic. It's the major ones that hurt. And I'm all about reducing pain on projects…. Hope that helps! Jill

    • Tony says:

      The one thing you can know for sure is that you will have missed something – or the needs will have changed before it is rolled out. So the secret is to design it for future changes – using good architecture, uml / OO modeling and maybe iterative / prototyping to get the basics right first

      • Interesting reaction Tony. Yes preparing for change is key in any project. However we’ve all seen projects that have been under-prepared for the unexpected. Thanks for the comment!

  2. Leanne says:

    One of the questins I always ask is to complete this sentence "my day would go so much better if . . . " It's probably a version of your "catastrophe" question. I often ask a reverse as well "something I can't live without (where the software is concerned) is" That helps identify what is important to them.

  3. Jill Richards says:

    Hey Tony, you are so right! Expect change to occur. I couldn’t agree more! It’s inevitable. I have yet to work on the a project where there were ZERO changes. Ha, don’t we wish! Minimizing change is what we should strive for… If we understand the most important requirements, ‘the basics’ as you call it, it should help to prevent major changes later on.

    Leanne, I like the questions alot! They might be variations of the questions I posed, but it’s important to mix it up and not always ask the questions in the same way. Love it! Thanks for the feedback both of you!

  4. Deena says:

    At the risk of restating your quesiton in yet another way….. I like to ask " If you were building this system, what would you make it do". And of course, the opposite, "what would you make sure it didn't do (or make the user do while using it)?". It is interesting what the business comes up with without a concept of simple or complex programming. These questions are great insight into usability requirements. Rather than true functional requirements, this way of thinking can get to the design that the users don't always think of. It avoids, "yes, i wanted it to allow me to do X, but I didn't want to have to click 5 times or go through 3 screens to accomplish it! " or "the system refreshes every single time I …….".

    It should be pointed out though, with all of these questions, expectations have to be really be leveled. Just because they asked for it, doesn't always mean they will get it! (or at least they have to know the cost associated with it).

  5. Jill Richards says:

    Hi Deena, great point! I love the angle of your questions. And I couldn't agree more with leveling expectations. Most of the time, our stakeholders don't get every single thing they ask for. Prioritization is key. We need to make sure the most important requirements are fulfilled. I too spend quite a bit of time coaching folks on this concept. And it's one of my favorite subjects to discuss. So perhaps you might see it in a future blog. Look for it, and between all of us, hopefully we can generate some best practices on managing stakeholder expectations. Thanks for the feedback!

  6. Tanya Buchanan says:

    For those BAs that have possible reporting requirements, it can be helpful to ask "What decisions do you have to make with this information?" and "If you don't have this information, what else is negatively impacted?" These questions help the business team to clarify why they need certain data and what they will do with it. If they don't make any decisions from it, is it really that important? It can also help to prioritize the work at hand with all participants instead of the IT dev team or the BA pushing back.

    • Jill Richards says:

      Hi Tanya, what a great point! I couldn't agree more with your statement "if they don't make any decisions from it, is it really that important?" A great BA will continue to look for inefficiencies such as unnecessary reports. Love it! Thanks for the comment! Jill