Why Business Analysts Need to Listen to the Crowd: Crowdsourcing Requirements Elicitation

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My last post asked: Is social media useful for requirements elicitation? In this post, I will explain why it is not only useful, but essential. That is because the more complicated systems get, the less likely it becomes that anybody has the right solutions and ideas for the system. If no person has the right answers, who does? The crowd does.  

In the book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki argues that “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, and are often smarter than the smartest people in them.” This is amazing if you think about it. Even if nobody in a group of people has the right answer, the combination of all people may have the answer.

This all comes back to the fact that nobody is smart enough to predict the future of complex systems. There is too much going on that makes prediction impossible, especially when you throw in factors like a sensitivity to initial conditions that exist in anything more complicated than figuring out what to order for lunch. Combine that with what Daniel Gilbert writes in the book Stumbling on Happiness, that we are poor predictors of even what we want and desire. If we can’t predict what we want, how on earth are we going to predict what hundreds or thousands of users worldwide will want? Quite simply, we can’t.

The solution is to ask the crowd. It turns out that the crowd can’t predict the future either. However, the guess of the crowd almost always turns out to be better than your guess, or the guess of anybody in your organization. That is why products developed with feedback from the crowd (the bigger the crowd, the better) will almost always be superior to products developed only with input from experts. Who is “the crowd” for your product? It could be system users in your company, it could be your sales reps, or it could be millions of customers worldwide, it all depends on the product that you’re creating. In most cases, crowdsourcing every aspect of your product is not necessary or beneficial, but in almost all cases you’ll need feedback from the crowd on a myriad of questions about the requirements.

This does not mean that experts are not valuable; they are the ones who figure out the right questions that need to be asked. Asking questions to the crowd will not work if you’re not asking the right questions. That’s where expertise comes in, along with standard requirements elicitation best practices. The same types of questions that don’t work in one-on-one elicitation will not work in crowd elicitation. Since most people don’t know what they want (or what will make them happy), it is the business analysts’ job to present the right questions in an effective manner in order to trigger useful thoughts and ideas. The ArgonDigital approach of using visual models will be as helpful with crowds as they are with individuals. The crowd will never replace the business analyst, but they can augment the business analyst’s work.

How does this relate to social media? Social media tools provide the best mechanisms ever developed to efficiently get feedback from crowds. The more efficient your communication mechanism, the more people you can include in your process. If you have the right social media technology, you may be able to include every user of the system. Imagine how much better your decisions could be if you could run each one by every user, with as little effort as it would take to send an email to your colleague across the hall.

The first steps in this process involve choosing your crowd, then choosing a social media tool that is both popular with that crowd and that will allow you to ask questions of the crowd, and then creating a community with the crowd (perhaps by sharing useful information and news that’s relevant to your crowd). Once you set up your “crowdsourced elicitation process,” it comes down to asking the right questions when opportunities arise. The benefit of creating a social networking community for crowdsourced requirements elicitation is that it will pay dividends for years to come. You never know when you will need the crowd’s help, so the key for success is creating the community before you need it.

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