What is it?

Also referred to as Job Shadowing and Following people around, at first glance, Observation seems like the easiest business analysis technique for eliciting requirements that there is. You just go out and watch someone work, and write down what they do, right? You can do that, but you may not be leveraging the technique as best you can.

The first decision you have to make is, what type of observation do you want to undertake? Of course, at this point you are probably thinking how many ways are there to sit and watch someone do something? Perhaps surprisingly, there at least five that I have come across. The first three below come from the BABOK Guide[1], with two others from the Business Analysis Techniques" book.[2]

Methods of Observation


With the active observation method, the BA asks questions of the person they are observing if the person does something the BA does not understand. Or if the BA is trying to understand why a person did something in a particular way. Even if by asking the question, the BA is breaking the participants work flow or otherwise causing a disruption of their normal work patterns.


With the passive approach, the BA simply observes and takes notes. They do not ask questions while the participants is conducting the work being observed and generally try to be as unobtrusive as possible. Only after the BA has viewed the entire work process one or more times will they ask questions of the person being observed to make sure they understand the process or why certain actions were taken.


The IIBA also identifies a third option, which is that the BA becomes an apprentice in the job and asks an experienced user to train them.

Protocol Analysis

The book Business Analysis Techniques: 72 Essential Tools for Success [2] also recommends an observation technique known as protocol analysis. In protocol analysis the person being observed essentially provides a running monologue of what they are doing and why they are doing it as they go about their job. This is also in the BABOK guide, but not given a specific name.


The Business Analysis Techniques book also discusses the STructured Observation of the Business Environment (STROBE) observation technique. With the STROBE technique the BA is not trying to document a business process, but is rather engaging in a form of observation in order to gather specific metrics such as how many calls a worker takes, how many calls are converted to orders, how often specific applications or screens are used, how often a worker has to turn to a specific resource to find information, and other similar specific metrics.


Why do it?

So why do Observation at all? Observation is invaluable if you need to understand the way a current business process functions, if you are looking to change or improve a current business process, or if you are trying to learn specifically how users actually engage with a piece of software or other job aid. You can just ask someone who does the job that you need to understand, but while most workers can tell you what they consciously know, they can't tell what they unconsciously know. Observation allows you to watch someone at work in their normal environment and see what they actually do, not what they can consciously think to tell you.


How do I do it?

The observation process generally involves three steps. They are:


Determine who you are going to observe. You generally want to observe more than one person in order to see a wider range of activities. Think about:


First, conduct the observation session(s) you have planned and keep in mind the following.

Second, if the environment and work allows, consider recording the observation session.



What Should the Results be?

The results of your observation sessions should be complete (hopefully) documentation of the process(es) being observed, with problem steps identified, and possible improvements already determined. Or, if you are undertaking observation for statistical purposes (the STROBE method), then you should end the observation process with the statistical information you set out to gather.







  1. For observation involving computer usage, it is now possible to do at least partial observation without having to be with the user. Microsoft Lync 2010 (and probably other applications) will let the user share their desktop while conversing with you. And with Lync at least, it is possible to record this session as well (if your corporate configuration allows). While there is nothing as good as actually being with the user, if you work in a globally distributed firm this provides an option for those times when the budget just doesn't cover flying you off to another work site.
  2. If you are going to do observation, try to make sure you observe both the newest member of the user group and the most senior. Unless the most senior is the person who trained the newest, in which case observe the next most senior who did not train the newest user.
  3. When observing many users, compile notes at regular intervals to identify commonalities and differences between users. Review findings with the entire shadowed group to ensure that the final details represent the entire group, not selected individuals. [3]


  1. BABOK Guide, section 9.18
  2. Business Analysis Techniques: 72 Essential Tools for Success; by James Cadle, Debra Paul, and Paul Turner. 2010. ISBN: 978-1-906124-23-6
  3. Article: Elicitation Techniques. By Christina L. Tenerowicz. Part of the Cornell University BA Toolbox.
  4. Blog: Using the Observation Technique for Requirements Elicitation. By Abidemi Stephanie Famuyide. On the Business Analysis Learning's blog.

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