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“Good” Interviewers Conduct GREAT Requirements Interviews

Requirements Interviews to discover Stakeholder needsInterviewing to elicit requirements is far and away the most common approach for discovering business and stakeholder requirements. Our seminar on “Requirements Elicitation – Getting User Requirements for IT Projects” contains a group exercise on what makes a good interviewer. The exercise uses brainstorming to get a list and then applies a prioritization technique to identify the top four characteristics. In the debrief, we then discuss specific aspects of the highest ranked characteristics.

In this post, I will share a collection of the most common characteristics identified by many groups and offer some insights into each characteristic. This list is not meant to be the definitive answer to which characteristics are the most critical. It is meant to be food for thought. Eat well and digest thoughtfully.

1. A Good Requirements Interviewer Is a Good Listener

I could write an entire post on this characteristic alone. Oh, wait – I already did. See the January, 2010 post The Fine Art of Listening – a Primary Business Analyst Skill.

2. A Good Requirements Interviewer Asks the Right Questions

Know what to ask the individual you are interviewing. Make sure that your questions target the interviewee’s area of expertise. Do not ask a manager about the details of the business process she manages unless you are simply trying to establish a baseline to check against the process that people who perform it describe. Managers quite often describe the process the way they think it should be done or the way they did it when they were doing the process. For a legitimate business process analysis, you need to know how it is done now. The people doing it are generally the best source. For ideas on how to figure out what to ask, see my April, 2011 post Of Asking and Telling – Requirements Interviewing Techniques for Business Analysis.

3. A Good Requirements Interviewer Asks the Question Right

Knowing the difference between open-ended and closed-ended questions is important for engaging the interviewee. Your job as interviewer is getting the interviewee to reveal what she knows about the topic. Use open-ended questions to get her talking and use closed-ended questions to confirm what you think she said. Paraphrasing is a fine tool of communication if it is used properly and is a great place for closed-ended questions.

4. A Good Requirements Interviewer Is Prepared and Organized

Having a list of questions to which you need answers and a written objective for the interview are great starting points. You also need to be able to effectively capture the responses and confirm that you are capturing what the interviewee really means. Send the interviewee your raw notes after the interview and request that she corrects anything she likes before you process them further.

5. A Good Requirements Interviewer Listens More Than He Talks

The old adage about having two ears and one mouth is a great starting point for the effective requirements discovery interviewer. This implies that 2/3 of the conversation should be coming from the interviewee and 1/3 from the interviewer. Remember, you are there to get her to tell you what she wants, not to tell her what she wants.

6. A Good Requirements Interviewer Maintains Eye Contact with the Interviewee

Although you are gathering requirements for a technology solution, interviewing is a human process. Looking the interviewee in the eyes while she is talking conveys your interest. Do not let your note taking interfere with effective communication. There is a time to listen and a time to write. Know the difference.

As a side note, maintaining eye contact brings up a whole slew of follow-on questions. Do you stare intently at the left (or right) eyeball while the interviewee is talking or do you switch off? How do you recognize when overly intense eye contact is making the other person uncomfortable? What do you do when the interviewee suffers from lazy eye syndrome or some similar disability? My best advice: be natural and learn from your own mistakes.

7. A Good Interviewer Dresses “Appropriately”

Back in the ‘80s, there were wonderful books like “Dress for Success”, which told you exactly what color of suit and tie to wear depending on where in the world you were presenting (or interviewing). And then we went casual; everything was thrown out the window as far as business dress standards were concerned. The best advice nowadays appears to be to dress to the level of the person you are going to interview. Make sure she is comfortable with your attire and your interview will probably be more productive.

How Does this Help You?

Contemplating what makes a good interviewer is a good first step toward improving your own requirement interviewing skills. You cannot change your requirements interviewing approach overnight, but you can change it over time. You can use our list or create your own list of the most critical characteristics of a good interviewer. Rate how well you feel that your requirements interviews embody these characteristics. Pick the ones in which you feel you need to improve. Find books or training (hint, hint) on how to enhance that particular characteristic. The next time you perform a requirements interview, focus specifically on that dimension of the interview and assess how well the interview went. How high did you score yourself in that characteristic and how did it influence the interview. Ask the person you interviewed how she felt about the interview and whether there was anything different about it.

Conducting requirements discovery interviews that identify the ”right requirements” is an art as much as it is a science. Improving your requirements interviewing skills can go a long way toward improving the probability of project success.


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