More effective requirements gathering with Microsoft OneNote

Microsoft's OneNote tool may be the perfect replacement for the standard pen and paper of requirements gathering in application development. With its ability to create outlines, add flags, and highlight, it is like Microsoft Word with enhancements. When you add in the ability to record audio and create screenshots you now have a platform that can change the way requirements are gathered.

The requirements gathering process is very difficult. Getting the information from the subject matter experts and packaging it into a coherent set of thoughts that the architect and developers can understand is among the hardest parts of developing software.

There's been little help with this process over the past few decades as we've struggled with other tools, techniques, and technologies in the rest of the software development process. For most folks the technology of requirements gathering has remained a pen and a pad of paper. However time tested this may be it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of efficiency and the ability to completely capture what the subject matter expert is saying.

Microsoft's OneNote tool may be the perfect replacement for the pen and paper. With its ability to create outlines, add flags, and highlight it's like Microsoft Word, which some hard-core functional analysts have used to take notes, with a few enhancements. When you add in the ability to record audio and create screen clippings you now have a platform that can change the way that requirements are gathered.

Note Taking 101

If you've used Microsoft Word to try to take notes during a meeting you know that it works fairly well except for a few nagging issues. It's certainly better than paper and pen if you know how to type quickly. However, things like creating outlines (unless you're in outline view), adding follow up flags, and the similar kinds of markup that are easy on paper aren't the easiest to do in Word. OneNote fixes all of these little idiosyncrasies that happen when trying to take notes in Word. For instance, in OneNote when you hit a tab it indents the item – and all of the following items.

Adding numbered lists or bullets is as easy as in Word. Select the text you want to bullet or number and press the button on the toolbar. Similarly if you need to start bulleting items just press the button with nothing selected.

Where the OneNote power begins to shine is if you decide you need to keep two (or more) streams of thought on the page at the same time. You can simply click on an unoccupied part of the page and you'll see a new text area get created so that you can type in that area. In Word you would have to draw text areas and hope that you got the relative size right.

If you happen to decide that you need to flag some text as something that you have to do, something important, a question to remember for later, or as a definition, you need only right click the line or select the specific text and right click, select Note Flags and select the specific note flag that you need. You now have a way to readily identify what you need to do with the information that you've captured. Figure A shows you some of what can be done easily in OneNote.

Figure A

Notetaking in OneNote is very easy to do – almost as intuitive as pen and paper.

Of course, there are dozens of other basic note taking tools that can make it easy for you to capture and organize your thoughts from a requirements gathering session, but one of the most powerful features of OneNote is the feature that allows you to record audio during your note taking session.

Recording audio

Being able to record the conversation that takes place during requirements gathering may seem like a trivial thing, after all the Windows Recorder application has been around for a long time, and yet people rarely record audio from meetings. However, the feature that OneNote has that makes audio recording very compelling is audio indexing. While you're typing OneNote is making a note of when within the timeline of the recording that typing is happening. It's constantly creating markers which can be used later to play the audio that was happening while you were typing in the line of text by just clicking a button which appears to the left of the text when you hover over it.

The net effect of this is that you can focus on listening to the conversation and engaging the subject matter experts instead of trying to make sure that you're capturing every word that was said. Just get enough text typed in to help you locate the topic and then move on. When you go back to review your notes you can always get more detail by clicking to resume the play of audio. Figure B shows the icon that appears automatically to the left of your typing when you have recorded audio while taking notes.

Figure B

Audio Indexing can take you to the conversation that was occurring while you were typing notes.

The one problem that remains with the capture of audio is that most computers are not equipped with good microphones. Often if there's an included microphone the amount of noise made while typing can overwhelm the information you want to get from the conversation. So an external microphone is a good idea.

There are two approaches to this. One is to buy a microphone and plug it into the microphone jack on the computer. This is certainly a valid approach and can work quite well if you can find a microphone that is designed to be Omni-directional and pickup from a wide area rather than from a single speaker – as most microphones are designed.

An alternative is to get a digital voice recorder which can be attached to the computer via a USB cable. The Olympus DS-330 voice recorder that I use becomes the microphone for OneNote. It has a setting for dictation and another setting that allows it to pickup audio for a whole room. This works very well for rooms with up to 10 people in it and acceptably well for rooms of up to 20 people. The goal here isn't to get perfect audio, the goal is to get intelligible audio from which you can reinforce your notes and review any parts of the conversation that may not have made sense the first time you heard it. For this purpose the digital voice recorder is more than sufficient – and I have a recorder that I can use disconnected from the computer as well.

Screen clippings

Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words, particularly to those of us who are visual communicators. That's why OneNote's ability to quickly snap shots of your screen can be so handy. The process of selecting what to include in your notes couldn't be easier. You tell OneNote that you want to add a screen clip. It minimizes OneNote for you and you can simply drag a box around the content that you want added to your notes. When you let go, OneNote reopens and adds the screen section to your notes.

The one limitation with screen clippings is that they aren't converted into text and therefore aren't searchable in the application. Figure C shows what happens when you capture a part of your background into OneNote. (The image is actually of Matuneska glacier in Alaska.)

Figure C

Screen clippings are added directly into your notes with a note on when you took it.

Organization and searching

Up to this point we've been talking about how to capture notes -- how to get information into OneNote. We've not worried about how one would get the information back out. However, OneNote excels at its ability to find information once you've put it in. In addition to a flexible organization mechanism for on-page information, the way that you organize information across pages is simple too.

OneNote uses a paradigm of organizing information in folders (which are literally file folders), sections (which are a single file on the file system), and pages. Folders work as you might expect being a container for sections. Sections have a visual metaphor of being a file folder which contains multiple pages. The individual pages are visually tabbed down the right edge of the screen as pages in a book, particularly a dictionary, might be tabbed.

Perhaps, however, more impressive is that the information that you key into the pages is automatically indexed so that you may at any time search for a word or phrase that occurs anywhere within your notebook. Search also highlights the words as they appear. One click gets you a list of all of the places where the word or phrase appears.

OneNote is a tool that's hard to find a niche for at first. Its features are exciting but are hard to find a purpose for – that is until you consider the requirements gathering process. Try using OneNote to capture your notes next time and see how much easier it makes the process.