This week's requirements elicitation technique is observation. Observation or job shadowing involves looking at the actual work environment that the end user experiences every day. This technique is used when attempting to document an existing process or when a project's goal is to improve a process. Observation is a great way to understand what the end user goes through in their job and can provide some instant requirements for how a process can be improved.

Just like any elicitation technique, observation can be used to supplement or confirm information gathered during other techniques. Have you ever tried to explain to someone what you do on a day to day basis in your job? It can be difficult. As a business analyst, if you are trying to gather requirements from end users by just interviewing them it can be hard for that person to explain what they do. This is where observation can be a key tool for you. By observing what a person does in their job they are showing you rather then telling. This allows them to go about their business while you make notes on the different tasks they perform.

Some jobs work better than others when it comes to observation. Manufacturing is one type of job that fits well with the observation technique. Any job that has repeatable manual processes in it is also a good candidate. Other jobs such as general management or work that is more intellectual than manual may not work quite as well, but there still may be components of that person's job that can be observed.

There are two main types of observation. The first is "Passive/Invisible". Here the observer does not interact with the worker at all. The observer just takes notes on what occurs. Once the entire process has been completed the observer can ask questions of the worker, but they are not to interrupt the person while they work. Some jobs are too hectic or dangerous for the worker to be constantly stopped and questioned. In those cases passive observation works the best. Air traffic controller is a good example of a job where passive observation should be used.

The second type of observation is "Active/Visible". In this technique the observer follows the worker throughout the process and stops and asks questions. Some questions to ask include:

  • "Why are you doing this at this point?"
  • "What is usually the next step?"
  • If an exception occurs in their process you may ask, "How often does this exception occur?"

Sometimes the observer may even perform some tasks in the process to get a better feel of what the worker goes through. This would be an example of active observation. It is important to have a list of questions to ask during observation, but it is also important that the observer be able to come up with good questions on the fly as things occur in the process.

An analyst may need to perform multiple observation sessions with a worker. This is so many of the process exceptions can be observed and documented. Even so, some exceptions may not be observed and this is one of the drawbacks of observation. This is where an interview can be a great supplement to observation so any actions that were not observed can be documented. Adding observation to your elicitation toolkit will provide an additional way to gather those important requirements for a project as well as understand the current process the stakeholders use.

Previous "Techniques for Eliciting Quality Requirements" entries