Business Analyst Guide to Understanding Stakeholders

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Recently, I had the honor of speaking at Product Camp Austin. I highlighted a crucial step that I think is often glossed over when setting out to improve products: truly understanding the stakeholders.

Even amazing projects can fall flat when they reach users. Identifying our stakeholders and understanding what elicitation techniques work best for them is good, but it’s not enough to ensure the quality of the overall user experience. We have all heard of projects that technically met requirements, but ultimately went unused by end users. User adoption was a failure, which means the product was a failure.

While stakeholder management and engagement are textbook concepts, how many of us really develop a thorough understanding of users? Taking the time to complete a few key exercises in understanding stakeholders can streamline and finesse our requirements. We can ensure that our products are not only useable, but that they are a joy to use.

Creating a Foundation

We can begin delving into our users’ experiences by understanding our product’s purpose and what functionality it needs to achieve those goals. Job analysis, a technique often used in human resources, can help us define the ideal requirements and competencies. Doing so lays a guiding foundation, while also helping us define and communicate with stakeholders throughout the process.

Implementing the RACI model (Responsible, Accountable, Consult and Inform) can further identify the roles and responsibilities of all potential stakeholders, as well as their level of involvement. With it, we define possible product interactions and determine who will participate in each one. A stakeholder matrix can then help us keep track of different user roles and their interests, concerns, definitions of success, and much more. 

Ask yourself:

  • What does my product or process need to accomplish? 
  • What components and functionalities does it require to achieve those goals?
  • Who are my stakeholders, and how will they interact with the product?

Making Stakeholders Real

Once we have a basic understanding of our product and user, it’s crucial to delve deeper into our stakeholder’s identity and experience. While building stakeholder personas is a common technique in many industries, it isn’t always applied to business analysis. Identifying and considering the users who will interact with our products is vital to understanding their motivations, needs, and capabilities. This information allows us to build every part of our product to suit our users. 

A persona, whether detailed or lightweight, should include personality and demographic details. We want to understand our users’ identities, their goals in using the product, and the activities and characteristics of how they might use it. To develop these personas, it is important to conduct user research, and then to find themes or characteristics that are specific, relevant, and universal to the system and its users. You can then refine and group this information into different personas.

Make stakeholders meaningful and interactive for your team by giving each persona a picture and name. Throughout the development process, this personified rendering makes it easier to imagine the user’s interactions with the product.

Ask yourself:

  • Who is this person and what do they know (e.g. computer skills, subject matter expertise, etc.)?
  • What goals motivate them to use this product? What pains will it help them avoid?
  • What activities will the user engage in with the product? How frequently? Where and when? Who else is involved? 
  • What other information and tools are available to them?
  • What are the implications for my product’s design?

Walking in a User’s Shoes

Once your team understands potential stakeholders’ identities, it’s time to see the process from the user’s perspective. One way to do this, as seen in Gamestorming by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macnufo, is an empathy map

An empathy map helps us consider what a stakeholder sees, hears, does, and says, as well as what they need to accomplish by interacting with our product at different stages. Rough empathy maps may help inform early development, but more extensive maps, based on user research, can further enrich requirements and improve product usability. 

As we grow to understand how users might interact with our product, we can begin enriching our grasp of each interaction with a customer journey map. In this map, we walk through every step of the user experience, while wearing the stakeholder identity we built in previous steps. From initial contact to engagement and long-term relationships, by considering what our users’ goals are, we can identify key interactions. 

At each stage, be sure to consider the user’s context, capabilities, expectations, and emotional states. Ultimately this step can help us identify and improve gaps in user experience.

Ask yourself:

  • Where is the user? Are there any external factors that may distract them? 
  • How does each step enable them to get to the next one?
  • What device are they using and what are its features? Are they novices or experts? 
  • What type of functionality do they expect? Is it achievable?
  • What is their emotional state? Are they engaged, bored, or annoyed? 

The first requirement for a successful product is a user experience that meets the needs of the customer, without fuss or bother. Its success goes beyond a checklist of functional features and requires us to consider what will actually engage and satisfy users. Then we can enhance products with the simplicity and elegance that make them enjoyable. 

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