What is it?
In an interview is a structured discussion between two or more people for the purpose of gathering information in a systemic way. The person conducting the interview, known as the interviewer, asks questions of the person or persons being interviewed, known as the interviewee.
Why do it?
Conducting interviews is one of the critical skills a business analyst should have and should constantly try to improve. Interviews are among the best ways to understand a business unit or process, determine scope, elicit requirements, determine stakeholder interests and goals, and explore solution options, to name just a few potential usages.
Interviews are preferable to surveys or questionnaires in that they allow the interviewer to immediately follow up on a response in order to clarify understanding or gather more information. They also allow the interviewee to provide more context and detail in their answer to a question than a survey or questionnaire might elicit. In addition, because interviews are usually conducted face-to-face the interviewer has the option to observe the nonverbal communication provided by the interviewee in response to questions.
How do I do it?
Conducting interviews for business analysis normally requires three different phases which may contain a number of activities within each phase. The three phases are Preparation, Conducting the Interview, and Follow-Up.
The preparation phase consists of the following activities:
Research the Area Under Investigation
One of the first things the business analyst should do in preparing for an interview is to research the area under investigation to the greatest degree possible in the time that is available. This includes looking at things like operational manuals, user guides, policies and procedures, websites, and other readily available material that relates to the subject matter being investigated.
This is done for several reasons, including:
- Identifying the areas that could be discussed during the interview.
- To identify gaps, assumptions, and important information that should be followed up on or verified during an interview.
- To identify potential groups or individuals who may be worth interviewing.
- To not waste the interviewee’s time during the interview by asking questions that could be readily answered via other means. Given the time commitment on the interviewee’s part, the interviewer has an obligation to make the best use of that time as possible.
Identify Potential Interviewees
In this activity the business analysts identifies which potential interviewees are most suitable for providing the information needed about the area under investigation. This includes answering such questions as:
- Who knows the most about the area under investigation?
- Who is actually available to be interviewed?
- Note that sometimes the “perfect” interview subject is not available during the needed time period due to heavy workloads, travel, vacation, and other commitments.
- If multiple people are identified as potential interviewees on the same subject matter, which of them are likely to have the most relevant information for the subject matter or court to have the most different perspective than other interview subjects?
- Note that by looking for different perspectives you are more likely to find previously unknown information or requirements during the interview process.
- Who has the greatest stake in the outcome of the project or initiative that the business analyst is working on?
TIP: If you’re familiar with the use of personas, you can create personas for different classes of interviewees to help ensure you are interviewing the best range of people as possible for the information you are seeking.
Contact Potential Interviewees
In this activity the interviewer contacts the selected potential interviewees, explains to them the purpose of the interview, determines if they are willing to participate in the interview process, and establishes the available dates and times to conduct the interview.
Specific interviewee’s are then selected and interviews scheduled.
Design the Interview
In this activity the interviewer designs the interview for each interviewee who will take part in the process. Among the factors that go into design and interview are:
- The type of interview that is best suited to the interviewee and the information the business analysts wishes to elicit. The two types of interview are:
- Structured Interview: This is an interview in which the interviewer has a predefined set of questions which they usually ask in a predefined order. This is useful when trying to elicit information from multiple interviewees about the exact same issues, but less useful when trying to gather information on broad subjects or issues that are subject to a great deal of user interpretation.
- Unstructured Interview: This is an interview in which the interviewer has few, if any, predefined questions. Rather, the interviewer and interviewee discuss the area of investigation in an open ended and free-flowing way. This interview type lets interviewees go down past the interviewer may not have foreseen and expound upon issues of particular concern to them without feeling that they are “taking too long” or “hijacking the interview”.
- The types of questions the interviewer would like to ask. The main types of questions are:
- Closed-Ended Questions: these are questions that are designed to elicit a single definitive response; such as yes, no, a specific number, or similar highly specific answer.
- Note that for interviews closed ended questions are best for confirming information you already know or have learned in the interview. Use open ended questions as much as possible when eliciting information from the interviewee.
- Open-Ended Questions: these are questions that are designed to open a dialogue on a specific issue, elicit a series of steps or activities, or other type of broad and less specific response. In general, it should not be possible to answer in open ended question with a simple yes, no, or number.
- Limited Choice Questions: these are questions in which the interviewee is given a restricted set of options to choose from as their answer.
- Closed-Ended Questions: these are questions that are designed to elicit a single definitive response; such as yes, no, a specific number, or similar highly specific answer.
- The organization or sequence of the questions.
- Ordering the questions that are asked in an interview in a specific way can support the elicitation of information from the interviewee in a logical manner that helps to ensure the highest quality responses. For example, questions can be grouped by topic or order of events, with each subsequent question within a group eliciting more information about the topic or sequence than the previous question.
- The supporting artifacts that will be used during the interview.
- If the interview will include questions about forms or documents, make sure to have an example with you during the interview.
- If the interview will include questions about software applications or websites, try to have a computer available with the necessary software installed or website accessible.
- If the interview will include questions about processes or policies, try to have any existing documentation on those available during the interview process as well.
- If the interview will include questions about a particular product, try to have a copy of the product available at the interview location.
- Do you want to have a white board, butcher paper, or other writing materials present for use during the interview?
- The location and method of the interview.
- Try to conduct the interview as much on the interviewees “home turf” as possible. By putting them in familiar surroundings they will be more at ease and it requires less effort on their part to attend the interview, making them more likely to participate.
- Sometimes a face-to-face interview is not possible so the interviewer may need to establish alternative methods such as via a video call, telephone call, or conference system.
- Additionally, the interview should take place in a location that is relatively quiet and free from distraction for both parties.
- If the interview is face-to-face, then perhaps a meeting or conference room, or an unused office would provide an ideal location.
- If conducting an interview via a video or telephone call, be sure to arrange locations for both parties that are quiet and where they will be uninterrupted for the duration of the interview.
- The time and duration of the interview.
- Choose a time and duration for the interview that is as convenient as possible for both parties. The first thing on Monday morning or the last thing on Friday afternoon are rarely good times for interviews as the interviewee is very likely to be distracted. Also, immediately after an extended meeting or other similar activity is also likely to be less effective as the interviewee will still be in the process of “disengaging” with their prior activity and will be less engaged in the interview process.
- Will the interview be recorded or a scribe present?
- It is always a good idea to record an interview if that is acceptable to the interviewee and possible given the interview circumstances. Having a recording of the interview to refer back to can be an extremely valuable resource when analyzing the meeting results or for verification of information at some point in the future. ALWAYS ENSURE YOU HAVE THE PERMISSION OF THE INTERVIEWEE BEFORE RECORDING AN INTERVIEW.
- If it is not possible to record an interview you may want to consider having someone else attend the interview to act as a scribe. As with a recording, be sure to have the interviewee’s permission to have a scribe attend and take notes.
- POSITIVE: Both of these options allow The interviewer to focus on the information the interviewee is providing as well as their nonverbal communication, without having to also focus on writing down that information. It also allows the interview to flow at a more natural conversational pace because the interviewer does not need to slow down or pause the interview while they document answers.
- NEGATIVE: be aware that recording an interview or having a scribe present can make the interviewee less willing to be fully honest with the interviewer or to provide information that could be perceived as negative.
Note that the BABOK guide version 2.0 places this activity before the “Contact Potential Interviewees” activity above. However, I recommend this activity be done after you contact the potential interviewee in order to best tailor the interview to the amount of time and location available for the interview, as well as any specific information or requests the interviewee had when contacted about the interview.
Conduct the interview
Interviews should be conducted in three stages. They are:
Each interview should be opened by:
- The interviewer stating the purpose and goals of the interview
- Whether the interview will be recorded or a scribe used (describe should be identified and introduced if one is present)
- Describe the issues that will be discussed and any time allocation per issue
- Describe the business analysts general level of knowledge about the topics being discussed. Setting this expectation early can sometimes prevent in interviewee from becoming frustrated if the business analysts asks “silly” or “introductory” questions.
- Asking if the interviewee has any initial concerns or issues to raise before the actual interview is conducted.
- Ensuring the interviewee is prepared for the interview. If the interviewee is unprepared the interview should be rescheduled to a different time than the interviewee can be prepared.
This is the stage in which the actual interview takes place. The interviewer may be moving through predefined questions during a structured interview or moving through topics or issues during a structured interview. The interviewer should be doing their best to engage in active listening and ensuring that the interview goals and objectives are met to the greatest degree possible.
During the interview, pause the process every once in a while to ask:
- Does the interviewee think the interview is going well? Is there anything they would change about the interview process to make it more effective?
- Was enough time spent on an issue that has been discussed before moving on?
- Does the interviewee have any questions about why certain topics are being discussed were certain questions raised?
At the end of the interview the interviewer:
- Summarizes the interview session
- Reminds interviewee of any follow-up steps that will be done
- Asks if there are any areas the interviewee felt were not discussed in sufficient detail or that were not discussed at all but was interviewee feels are relevant?
- Ask the interviewee if there are any questions they would like to raise?
- THANK THE INTERVIEWEE FOR THEIR TIME!
After the interview the interviewer conducts several activities, including the following:
- The interviewer reviews any notes or recordings from the interview and documents the interview results in an organized structure. THIS SHOULD OCCUR AS SOON AS POSSIBLE after the interview in order to ensure the greatest recall on the part of the interviewer as possible.
- During this review any follow-up questions from the interview are identified.
- The interviewer sends any notes and follow-up questions to the interviewee for review and confirmation. This allows the interviewee to correct any mistakes or misunderstandings that may have occurred in the notes from the interview process.
- Be sure to thank the interviewee for their time both during the interview and for any time they may commit to reviewing notes or answering follow-up questions.
- If multiple related interviews were done, it may be advisable to aggregate all of the information and findings from that interview set and send the information to all of the interviewees for review and confirmation so that they can identify inconsistencies or gaps in the information that was provided collectively.
What Should the Results be?
The end result of an interview should be organized information that relates to the area that is being investigated by the business analyst. This information could consist of potential requirements, process knowledge, organizational knowledge, or other information the business analyst needs or can use as part of the analysis effort.
Note that an interview IS NOT intended to validate requirements or to determine whether any requirements that are elicited during the interview shall ultimately be approved or included in the final solution. Rather, the interview should be used purely for information elicitation purposes only.
Interviews offer many advantages to the business analyst in eliciting information. These advantages include:
- Generally allows for broader answers then a survey or questionnaire.
- Allows the business analyst to immediately follow up to an answer with further questions designed to confirm understanding or elicit more information.
- Allows the business analyst to observe nonverbal behavior if conducted face-to-face.
- Interviewees are often more open and willing to provide information that could be perceived as negative by others in a one-on-one situation, then what they would provide in a group elicitation technique such as JAD sessions or brainstorming.
- Allows the business analyst to build a rapport with stakeholders in the project effort by engaging with them in a one-on-one session versus what may be possible via group elicitation techniques or via non-interactive techniques such as surveys or questionnaires.
Interviews also pose a number of risks that the business analyst should understand when using them. These risks include:
- Interviews require substantial time commitments on behalf of both the interviewer and interviewee. This can make them difficult to arrange or if insufficient time is available, significantly reduce the value of the interview process itself due to the limited interaction time that is available.
- Business analysts can unintentionally lead an interviewee as to what specific information they provide which can lead to overlooking important pieces of information.
- Getting good results from an interview takes skill and experience on the interviewer’s part.
- An interviewer who is unsure may overlook important nonverbal communication on the part of the interviewee or may unintentionally convey to the interviewee that their time is being wasted or insufficient attention paid to their answers.
- If the interviewer is not good at active listening or fails to follow up on information the interviewee provides, they may unintentionally convey to the interviewee that they have a greater understanding of the subject matter than they do. Causing the interviewee to leave out what would otherwise be valuable information under the assumption that the interviewer already knows it.
- If the interviewer’s questions are unclear or structured in an unclear or just organized manner, the notes or information derived from the interview may also be unclear or just organized, reducing the value of the interview.
- If the interview is recorded and needs to be transcribed, this can be either time-consuming or expensive.
- The quality of the interviewer’s follow-up questions is dependent on the interviewer’s knowledge of the business domain in many ways. This can lead the interviewer to overlook important information or instances where follow-up would be valuable or necessary.
- If interviews are done with multiple interviewee’s on the same subject area, this may require substantial follow-up work to clarify differences of knowledge and opinion. It may be better in such cases to use group elicitation techniques such as requirements workshops in order to gather information from as many of the targeted individuals as possible in a setting where differences can be collectively discussed and worked out.
- Start with general questions and then ask more detailed questions as the interview progresses.
- Don’t ask leading questions. If your question implies the answer you want to hear, the interviewee may not provide full information or may tailor their response in such a way as to confirm the bias your question implies.
- Be persistent. If you are having any difficulty understanding the interviewees point or the information they are providing, make sure you ask follow-up questions until you do understand.
- Ask for examples. Few things will help ensure you understand the interviewees information as well as examples that directly demonstrate their point.
- Just because you may be conducting in unstructured interview does not mean you cannot ask specific or closed ended questions.
- Paraphrase information back. To ensure you understand the information that is being provided by the interviewee, paraphrase it back to them to confirm your understanding.
- Ask about exceptions. When discussing processes or systems, interviewees will frequently only discuss the normal or most common steps. Be sure to ask about when things go wrong or exceptions to the normal workflow in order to stimulate a fuller discussion and greater understanding.
- Shut up! Many people, including many business analysts, have a subconscious desire to dominate a discussion. As interviewer you need to guide the discussion, ask leading questions, and confirm your understanding. But if you don’t shut up the interviewee will not only have less opportunity to talk about what’s important, they will be less willing to. Also, sometimes the interviewee is waiting for a gap in the interview flow to bring up something they feel hasn’t been explored in enough detail, or at all.
1. REALLY GOOD REFERENCE! PDF: Successfully Interviewing Your Project Customer and Gathering Detailed Requirements. By Dr. Keith Mathis.
2. BABOK Guide v2.0. Section 9.14 – Interviews. International Institute of Business Analysis.
3. Article: How to Interview When Gathering Requirements. By Scott Sehlhorst. Tyner Blain. 2006.
4. Book: Business Analysis Techniques: 72 Essential Tools for Success. James Cadle, Deborah Paul, and Paul Turner. BCS: The Chartered Institute for IT. 2010.5.
- Article: Use These Interviewing Techniques to Gather Project Requirements. By Tom Mochal. Tech Republic. 2008.
- Article: Make Requirements Interviews Less Painful. By Rick O’Brien. Tech Republic. 2003.
- Article: Six Tips to Double Your Requirements Interview Effectiveness. By Scott Sehlhorst. Tyner Blain. 2006.
- Article: Requirements Gathering – Interviewing the Right People. By Scott Sehlhorst. 2006.
- Blog Post: Reverse Engineering Testable Requirements – Interviewing Business Subject Matter Experts. By Laura Brandenberg. Bridging the Gap.
- Blog Post: Interviewing Users – Tips. By Ludwig Consulting Services. 2007.
- Article: Alan Alda’s Interviewing Tips for Uncovering Business Requirements. By Margie Ross and Ralph Kimball. InformationWeek. 2005.
- PDF: Better Interviewing for Better Requirements. By Craig Errey and Zoe Soon. PTGglobal. 2006.