What should analyst ask from client?

Recently I wrote about characteristics of good analyst. I have to add that nobody is perfect – it is very difficult to find someone with all the listed characteristics. In addition, every analyst has all those traits represented on different level. Every analyst can improve themselves in areas where they aren’t that strong.

In my own opinion, my biggest weakness is asking questions. Often I didn’t know what to ask even when it was clear that I don’t understand anything. Still, you need to start somewhere…

In the world of autistic people, I found the book The Essential 5. This book says that autistic children have it easier, if you always answer 5 questions: “why?”, “who?”, “where?”, “when?” and “how?”. I have started to use those same questions to find out everything necessary in IT-projects.

Why?

If you don’t know answer to “why?”, there is no point in going to next questions.

Why is this project started? What goals does this project need to reach? What KPIs need to be improved with this? Why are these KPIs important?

Simon Sinek has written a book “Start with why”. I agree with the title without reading the book itself. This is the most important question, the easiest to ask – and most underutilized. From “why?” you can set priorities and lead to more suitable functionality. IT system is waste of everyone’s time and money, if it doesn’t correspond to that question.

“Why?” gives the goal to the whole project and puts it in the context of the surrounding world. This is the clear basis for making decisions by all parties. The opposite question of “why not?” is also important. As an example, it is not necessary to implement already existing functionality or currently less important requirement. It limits the scope and helps make sure it is ready in time.

Answer to “Why?” often doesn’t is not documented. I have not found any good techniques to make sure it is always added there. “Why?” should be part of vision, RFQ or project contract. As this is compiled by customer, it doesn’t have a standard structure. During business analysis, different techniques are used to examine the background (SWOT, MOST, PESTLE, business plan etc), but the goal is only a small part of it. “5 Whys” technique helps discover the deeper reasons, but in my experience, it is used rarely and only in the beginning.

If “Why?” is missing then:

  • Work is mechanical and error prone for all roles – developers, testers, implementers;
  • Later, when system is repaired or improved, they may contradict the objectives;
  • Nobody knows whether described functionality is actually needed or an analyst’s nice-to-have idea.

Agile software development methodology solves the problem by bringing customer and developer behind the same table. Still, in this case “Why?” is only in their memory. After a few iterations, it is difficult to remember why the solution was created the way it was. Something important for the customer may be lost in further developments, and will need to be restored.

“Why?” also needs to be asked as sub-question of all of the following questions:

  • “Why they are interested in the project?”
  • „Why exactly this way?“
  • „Why at that time or with that regularity?“
  • „Why there?“

Who?

Who orders the project? Who will be using the system? Who is interested in this system for some other reason?

“Who?” is often the starting point of project because, as they say – the one who pays, orders the music. Customer’s “why” is the most important for the project and it is customer, whose goals are primary from project’s standpoint. Analyst still needs to view solution from viewpoint of all parties. Stakeholder analysis is used to find all parties, and you can use different techniques to do that.

“Who?” says to the analyst, whom they need to talk to, or whose interests they need to find from other channels.

There are also common answers to this question. First, the customer and different roles who will be using the system. Analyst will be spending most of the time with them or considering from their point of view. Additionally, there are roles that tend to get overlooked:

  • Legal requirements (if customer cannot bring these up);
  • Competitor’s interest (that we want to contradict);
  • Accountant/management reporting needs;
  • and needs of technical system administrators.

The discovered needs are usually contradictory, but analyst needs to find suitable solution for the customer.

Where?

Where does future user currently do needed activities? What is customer’s and users’ vision about where they could do these in the future? Where is information needed by stakeholders?

“Where?” tells you first about the architecture of future solution. For example, what views are needed, how the data is stored, which systems are involved – and which are not.

On the other hand, “where?” talks about devices used by future users. Maybe the user is a technician, who uses a mobile phone with small screen while on the site? Maybe they didn’t have some devices before and it is needed to procure them within the project? Maybe it is required for all future users to use specific operation system? Maybe it is reasonable to continue using existing solutions – partially, for transition or as replacement of some development.

Different aspects of “where?” are described in (nonfunctional) requirements, architecture and deployment views. It is also mentioned on process diagrams, user stories and use cases.

When?

When does a process start? What is the order of different processes, what is the frequency? When does user need to see any information? When do the process results need to be ready?

“When?” helps to decide whether to automate a process or make it manually accessible. Often used processes and information may need to be made more easily accessible or highlighted. It may be necessary to optimize time-critical processes.

“When?” gives mostly information about what the solution can be like. This information is described in requirements, processes and use cases.

How?

How do future users currently do those activities? What is the customer’s and users’ vision for how to do that in the future? How would it be most convenient/efficient/correct way to reach to the result? How can we provide best solution to customer within given time and budget constraints?

“How?” question is dealt with during most project meetings and hours spent alone by analyst. It helps you understand all details that you can’t find with previous more generic questions. It is also used to understand how processes work in system to be built or around it.

When focusing on “How?” there is risk to forget “Why?”. For example, you create system exactly the same way as current process that is based on paper or Excel use. There is no added value from process optimization in such system.

“How?” is mostly described in process diagrams, use cases or user stories. In my experience, the best way is process diagrams with descriptive remarks, because these don’t need specialized IT knowledge to read. Depending on the project, it still might be better to create user stories or use cases instead.

Conclusion

Maybe you wonder, why there is no “what?” question in this list? It wasn’t there in given framework – and whether through luck or some other reason, it is not needed. Analyst is answering this question with their work. Some customers do give quite detailed vision about what the future should be. Still, even in this case, it must be analyzed whether it really is the best possible solution. Using the analyst’s experience and analysis process, usually the final solution will be somewhat different. Too detailed vision given by customer may even draw out analysis process and make it more complicated; especially if analyst forgets to ask “Why?” because of it.

Those questions are clearly not exhaustive. You can go into more details in everything, and based on project, you may need to ask some very specific questions. Still, this framework helps cover biggest areas during IT project analysis. They help me start the discussion, if it is difficult for some reason, and keep the most important thing in focus.

Why would you use this framework – or not? Do you have some simple frameworks that help in analysis process? Add them below as comments or in our Facebook or LinkedIn group!

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