Asking the Right Questions to Elicit the Right Requirements

There are many types of questions used in gathering requirements information. Using all types of questions as part of your user requirements research allows you to organize and discover what the users need and want within the scope of the project. Remember, skilled requirements analysts are experts at asking questions, especially when they don’t know the answers! The types of questions a skilled analyst should be proficient with include research, detailed, directive, meta, open-ended and closed-ended questions.  Let’s take a quick look at each of these question types.

Research questions are general questions inviting users to provide information about their concerns, interests, and needs relative to the project. Research questions allow the skilled analyst to scope out user needs. People are comfortable answering research questions when the questions are not limited or specific and the answers are not controlled in any way.  An example of a research question might be: What constitutes success for this project?

Detailed questions target more specific information within the predefined project scope or other limits. These questions are typically the step after research questions and help the analyst focus on the specific information that is needed. To be thorough, detailed questions should be framed around the five “W’s” of project management: who, what, where, when, and why.  As questions become more specific, it is very important to discourage one-word answers, such as “yes” and “no.” This can often be achieved in the phrasing of each question. An example of a detailed question is: Why is there an inventory problem? or Who provides you with this information?

Directive questions are used primarily by business analysts in group settings where there are contradictions in what the analyst has been told. These questions direct the other parties to an area where agreement needs to be reached and sometimes away from an area that is contentious. For user requirements information, these questions can be used to get consensus on specific features and functionality and to encourage making a decision. An examples of a directive question might be: What is the relative priority of this key feature?

Meta questions are a powerful tool for the analyst, as they enhance what has just been said. Meta questions are questions about questions. This excellent communications strategy allows the analyst to promote open communication in a non-threatening way. Meta questions help clarify and summarize what the analyst has been told and prove that he or she has been listening. Examples of meta questions include Do you mind if I ask you about …? or Are there any areas that I have missed?

Both research and detailed questions can be open-ended or closed-ended. Open-ended questions allow respondents to determine how they will answer. They invite user involvement and draw out their expertise. However, they can be time-consuming. Open-ended questions are used when the analyst is not familiar with the area being discussed.  One examples of an open-ended question is: What concerns do you have about the proposed new system features?

Closed-ended questions ask the user to select from a predetermined set of answers to a question, such as “yes” or “no,” multiple choice, or ratings scales. We see these all the time in our everyday life when we fill out warranty information for appliances and answer questions asking us to define the demographic we fit into as a customer – income, education, lease or own. Closed-ended questions are difficult to design and should be used when the business analyst wants to compare a specific set of predetermined responses from many people.

Using a good blend of question types at all levels of detail allows business analysts to elicit more complete and correct requirements information for their projects.  Happy information gathering!

Susan Weese

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