Life, the Universe, and Everything

Great User Requirements Rule # 3:  Ask questions in the right way

Information gathered from the users should be about how the business works, not about software features.  After the business needs are known, an expert can present the options to fulfill those needs.


“42” is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything as revealed in Douglas Adams book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  This puzzling answer is provided by a computer known as Deep Thought.  Deep Thought explained the answer was incomprehensible because those who asked the question did not understand what they were asking.  A more powerful computer would need to be built to properly explain the question.  This computer, often mistaken for the planet Earth, was unfortunately destroyed just five minutes prior to revealing the question.

There is a skill-set associated with asking the right questions.  Unfortunately, Business Analysts often frame their questions in the context a software feature rather than to understand a business need.  The problem with asking questions about software features is the delivered solution can be a puzzling.    Understanding business needs provides the background a Business Analyst requires to identify options and recommend an approach.

A software product I currently work with has four key fields that categorize orders.  Setting these fields properly is important as it drives a lot of system functionality.  It also locks the customer into certain ways of using the system for years to come because adjustments will impact historical data, system settings, and procedures to use the system.  In the past the discussion with the customer went like this: “Here are four fields used to categorize your orders in the system.  How would you like to categorize your orders?”  A customer not knowing all the implications of these fields will provide their best answer.  Often the consequences of an uninformed decision materialized well after the customer was live on the software.

A better practice I instituted is to have the Business Analyst ask a full set of business related questions that accounts for all the downstream effects of those four fields.  This includes questions designed to understand how work is organized amongst employees, commission calculation, how revenue is broken out by accounting, and how operational reports are organized.  With this information we can then provide a recommendation on use of these four fields.  An additional benefit of this approach is that we can recommend the bare minimum use of these fields, leaving the customer’s options open in the future if there is a business change requiring use of an additional field.

The above approach requires some additional effort initially, but saves a lot of time on the back-end eliminating adjustments to the delivered solution.  Preparation is required to ensure that all the down-stream impacts of the design are fully known.  System users know their business, not software features, so Business Analysts need to be prepared to talk the language of the customer.

We had a customer once that was insistent on putting into place a system feature that enables his system to talk to the on-board computers of his carrier’s trucks.  The team spent a lot of time talking about this software feature without understanding the background of what he was trying to achieve.  The outcome was a sub-optimal solution as the system would need to have records for each of his carrier’s trucks and track when each of them is dispatched; an administrative nightmare.  Had the team understood the underlying business needs, they would have known that the customer simply needed to know where the loads were for the purposes of alerting the store of the incoming shipment.   Once known several simpler solutions were quickly identified.

Asking questions in the right way is not a skill-set that is quickly acquired.  There can be some training to help a Business Analyst focus on business needs and how to write good business requirements.  This foundation can be supplemented with observation of someone who has great interviewing skills and to have a coach present as they begin their own interviews.  A technique some find helpful is the 5 Whys.

The key to getting started with the right questions is awareness of the Business Analyst’s obligation to fully understand the business practice.  Make sure your questions are focused on a business objective and answers clearly explain the root cause for performing that business action.  Is it value added or just something that has always been done that way?  If no value can be articulated, could the business practice be eliminated?  Until you understand this detail you have not probed far enough.