Mining project requirements - techniques to use before and after an interview

Conducting a good interview to gather project requirements can be a daunting task -- particularly if you are interviewing a stakeholder who holds a high position in the organization, or has a reputation for making people uncomfortable. Good preparation and good follow-up are critical factors in a successful interview.

Tom Mochal recently provided excellent tips on interviewing techniques to gather project requirements. Conducting a good interview can be a daunting task -- particularly if you are interviewing a stakeholder who holds a high position in the organization, or has a reputation for making people uncomfortable. Good preparation and good follow-up are critical factors in a successful interview.

This blog post is also available as a PDF in a TechRepublic download.

Prepare for the interview

Choose the right business experts

In the early stages of a project, deciding whom to interview is a challenge. A broad understanding of a business problem depends on interviewing the people who know something about it. For that reason, don't be shy.

Ask the project sponsor for names of the people you should initially interview. Locate each name in an organization chart, and consider their title and functional role. Are there people above and below them in the organizational hierarchy that you should also interview? Does the business problem affect vendors or customers? If so, ask the sponsor for permission to interview representatives from these groups as well. Be mindful of politics -- the supervisor of someone you interview may feel jilted if you decide not to interview them.

Pick the right place

As an interviewer, you have to choose a meeting place that enables the free flow of information. Unfortunately, there are many barriers to this flow -- lack of privacy and phone interruption are examples. If interruptions are a risk, try to meet outside the person's office. Consider using a corporate meeting room, or somewhere offsite. I've conducted some excellent interviews over lunch in a noisy place.

If you must meet in the person's office, ask that they "busy" their calls. If privacy is a potential issue, make certain no one can hear through the walls of the room where you meet. If the interviewee has a packed meeting schedule or supervises people, convenience or decorum may dictate a meeting in the interviewee's office.

Schedule the meeting

Hour-long interviews work well. Recognizing the overhead of preparation and follow-up, you may think a longer meeting is best. If you don't feel an hour is enough time, set up a second meeting with the interviewee. Enthusiasm for your questions often fades as the interviewee starts to think about his or her schedule. When you schedule the meeting, leave enough time buffers before and after your interview for the interviewee to travel between meetings. Leave extra buffer at the end of an interview in case a little time is needed to finish up.

Prepare yourself

The business problem you are trying to understand has a domain. Prepare for an interview by learning about that domain. You should be able to identify the domain inputs and outputs, and understand the processes within it.

There are many sources for this understanding. Examine documentation, learn existing systems, or interview people who can give you an overview of the process. Early in the project, it helps to create a flowchart or context diagram showing the entities involved in a system domain and the nature of their involvement.

Learn the language

As business specializes, jargon develops to identify and describe its products and processes. In order for you to understand the interviewee, you have to understand the language he or she will use. To become familiar with these terms and concepts, read books that describe the industry. Your local bookstore or library may have suitable books, and the Web is increasingly a good source. Consider asking a business expert to recommend a book -- such books are often very valuable. Mentors are probably your most valuable resource for learning to speak the lingo.

Prepare good questions

Although you may not use all of them, come prepared to ask good questions. Tom's article describes "how" to interview, but you have to prepare "what" questions to ask. Start by asking yourself:

  • What is the project scope? Rely on a project charter to provide the context for the questions you should ask.
  • What is the context of the interviewee relative to the business need or opportunity you are investigating? Existing operational documentation may provide guidance.
  • What am I expecting this person to know? Think about the interviewee's role, knowledge, perspectives, and interests in the context of the project.

Ask for a second opinion

When preparing for an interview, write down the questions you intend to ask. It may help you organize and clarify questions. Consider asking a peer to review the questions you plan to ask. Thirty years of interviewing people has taught me that there are rarely bad answers in an interview, but there are plenty of bad questions. By having someone else review your questions, you may discover a perspective on the interview you hadn't considered. A second pair of eyes may also help you root out improper questions. A peer's suggestions may add great value to questions you plan to ask.

Consider recording the interview

If you have only one opportunity to interview someone, bring along a tape recorder. Travel distance, difficult schedules, or organizational statuses are sometimes barriers to conducting a follow-up interview. Be sure to ask permission from the interviewee before you begin recording. Be honest and indicate why you need to record the interview. Plainly indicate the tape will not be shared with others.

Follow-up the interview

Review and clarify your notes

Good note taking is an important interview skill -- whether you recorded the conversation or not. If you did not tape the interview, your notes contain much of what the interview provided in value. If you did record the interview, your notes probably summarize key points or identify subject areas to explore further. Either way, review your notes as soon as possible after the interview. Otherwise, you may miss important themes or lose clarity on a topic.

Ask follow-up questions

It is common to have follow-up questions for the interviewee, particularly if you are new to the subject area, or the project is complex. Most people appreciate getting a follow-up phone call to clarify a few points. When you call, apologize for the interruption and ask if he or she has a few minutes to answer your follow-up questions. If they are busy, ask for a better time to call. While you can ask the questions by e-mail, what often ensues is time-consuming and unsatisfactory.

Summarize your notes and ask for feedback

Ask yourself, "How do I know I understood the stated requirements?" Even if you recorded the conversation and listened to the tape, the interviewee may have intended something other than what was said. In addition, the answers to your questions may have only uncovered a portion of the requirement you hope to define. Summarize each of the requirements you heard. Send the interviewee an e-mail with the requirements as an attachment. Be sure to thank them for their time and interest in the project. Invite them to review what you wrote and ask them to contact you to correct the requirements.

Next steps

While preparing adequately for a requirements interview does not guarantee success, failing to prepare puts your interview at risk. Adequate interview follow-up improves the quality of the requirements you uncover.