Requirements Elicitation Technique – Observation

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I read with interest the other day a blog that Geraldine Mongold wrote regarding the observation technique, and the value that it can provide.  It got me thinking about an experience I had many years ago, when I was in a Support role, and we were attempting to troubleshoot a bug that a customer had.  No matter what we did, we could not replicate the bug (our software had an integration with Microsoft Project, our customer experiencing a problem with that integration).

Now, this was before the time of web conferencing software, and our customer was in Europe, so a site visit was not possible, thus we hopped on the phone.  We had our customer go through his process, key stroke by key stroke, to help us replicate the issue.  It was this key stroke by key stroke instruction that finally allowed us to replicate the issue, for after the transfer of data to Microsoft Project our customer then executed a “save”, where we had programed the integration to automatically “save”.  The double save is what caused the problem.

Our first problem was there were unstated assumptions on both sides of this problem.  We assumed the customer did not save, since we knew the application did it for him, while he assumed that we knew that he had done a save, since it just made logical sense to him.  But in order to find out we had made those assumptions, we essentially had to employ the “observation technique”, albeit a bit different since it was only over the phone, to find our problem.

I recently finished up delivering several rounds of training, and we have an exercise as part of our training the bring home the point of the advantages of using the observation technique.  We ask a student to walk us through a basic task, and we follow their instructions exactly.  Of course there are a lot of assumptions that are made, everyone has a good laugh as I follow the instructions so exactly, but it drives the point home.

So many of our customer try very hard to tell us about their processes.  They think and honestly believe that they are giving us all of the information that we need to know.  However, we all make assumptions…and those assumptions get baked into our process flows, and ultimately into our requirements.  Those assumptions can be wrong, and can definitely cause our delivered products to be off, because of these unstated assumptions.  That is never good.

I believe that observation is a technique that is under-utilized.  Be sure to keep this technique in mind as you work on projects, and employ it!

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