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Seven Options for Better Requirements

I was asked recently, “What are the latest techniques for gathering business requirements?”

This is a loaded question: although there are dozens of techniques for gathering requirements, the most effective one is not to have to gather them at all. That is, your BI team has so much experience in your company and industry that it already knows what users are going to ask. And through continuous dialogue with the business--via both formal and informal channels--the team already knows the business processes and supporting data inside and out and has built much of the infrastructure needed to support current and future requirements. Beautiful.

Ok, I know, I know, I know….. Just anticipating what users want is not enough to build a solution. You still need to gather, verify, and document requirements and prototype a solution to ensure that you're building the right thing. It’s important to complement innate knowledge of the business with tried and true techniques for gathering requirements.

So that being said, here are seven of my favorite requirements gathering techniques. (And I'd love to hear your favorites!):

1. Interviews. The old standby is the one-on-one interview. And if you have good listening and synthesizing skills, there is nothing better. Send out your interview questions in advance so people can think about their answers before you get there; you’ll get better, more thoughtful responses. And make sure you ask the right questions. Don't ask, "What data do you need?" or "What do you want the report to look like?" Rather, ask: "What are you trying to accomplish?" "What actions will you take if you have this information?" "What are your goals?" "What are your incentives?" Finally, make sure you interview above and across the group you are working for as well the folks in the group itself to get the "global" perspective.

2. Joint application design (JAD) - It's best to supplement individual interviews with a group session, especially to present the findings from the individual interviews and get feedback so you can refine the requirements.

3. Surveys. Believe it or not, surveys are a great way to capture solid feedback. In an interview, most users are put on the spot (unless they dutifully prepared for the interview.) A survey gives them time to look at the questions and think about their answers before they submit them. You can also survey a lot more users than you can interview. Of course, the downside is that some people may never return the survey, in which case you need to schedule a one-on-one interview with them anyway. Always follow survey with a joint design session to get feedback from the group.

4. Process mapping. Ultimately, a BI solution is a vehicle to shed light on one or more business processes. So find out what those processes are. Understand the flow of data through each process, and how the availability of data can streamline them. Be careful though, many users are wary of process reengineering sessions where you map workflows with stickies. Asking "day in the life of…" questions might be a better approach. Ultimately, BI developers with years of experience in the business or industry already know these processes and the data that supports them.

5. Reverse engineering. You can probably obtain 60% to 80% of the metrics, attributes, and dimensions for a new report or dashboard in existing reports or operational systems. There is often no need to recreate wheel, just extend it a bit. Take the time to examine what people already use but don't let those forms bias what you produce, either.

6. Prototypes. A great way to refine your requirements is by creating a prototype based on actual data if possible (fictional data if not) so users can see and interact with a system before it goes into production. A picture is worth a thousand words. Once users "see" the application, they'll know immediately if it meets their requirements or not. Just make sure they understand it's a prototype not a production system.

7. Automation Tools. There are tools that can assist in requirements definition. Designers have long tried to snare unsuspecting users into helping them refine entity-relationship models, but these are too intimidating for most users. Some vendors, such as Kalido, use higher-level conceptual models that make it easier for developers to conduct a dialogue with users. The models can then automatically generate schema and transformation code. Another vendor, Balanced Insight, provides a tool that lets users define dimensions, attributes, and metrics in plain English and then vote on the alternatives (hence the name "Balanced Consensus"). Like Kalido, it can generate star schema and semantic layers for several leading BI tools. Other data mart automation tools in this genre include Wherescape and BI Ready.

What are your favorite techniques for gathering requirements? What gotchas lay on the road to perfect designs? I’d love to know!

Posted by Wayne Eckerson on January 17, 2010


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