Business Analyst Interviews
Welcome to another of our webinars in which we delve into some of the techniques we teach in the course in more detail or discuss some of the issues that affect business analysts. In this session we will go more deeply into the most common technique used by any business analyst, that of the stakeholder interview.
This can be one of the most difficult techniques to use, and there is always something new to learn about how to conduct an interview.
Let’s get straight into it and explore in more detail the intricacies of conducting an interview with our users.
Why Should a Business Analyst Hold an Interview?
The first purpose for an interview would have course be to explore the existing system. This is usually the first thing we have to do when beginning a new project, that is to understand the existing system which will be replaced by a new one or enhanced in some way.
Other contexts may be to define the business goals and objectives of the project, or to drill down and understand the project contexts and the conditions under which it will operate in more detail.
A business analyst will always want to understand processes, procedures and structures that are in place in an existing system. Alternatively, the analyst will seek requirements for the new system within the constraints under which it will operate.
Experienced business analysts will also look for the informal information flows and collaborations that occur between the users, because these can be the most crucial requirements of all. Not everything will be automated by the existing application, or the new solution once it is implemented.
Outside of this automation boundary there will be interactions that occur between people, often ones which are not documented. The analyst needs to understand how the people work as a team, not just how they interact with the system.
What Can an Interview Do For a Business Analyst?
The interview is not just to elicit facts and figures or to develop process models, they can also be to establish the opinions and beliefs of the people who will use the system. These can often be more important in revealing than the facts about the system itself.
Never underestimate the importance of people’s feelings about the existing system or their wishes for requirements in the new system. These can have emotional value to the people. We need to understand the morale and culture of the users. We need to capture their emotions and attitudes. In this way we will begin to understand the type of solution which would be successful for them, in their environment and within the context of their team culture.
The interview will also define the goals of the stakeholders and what they need from the new system. It will define their desires for the future and the direction they want their team, department or the organisation to follow.
A crucial element of the interview is to also build up a relationship with stakeholders, and establish their trust. It is possibly the most important thing to do. Unless the users believe that you are interested and committed to finding the best solution for them they will not trust you with their future. The credibility of the business analyst is a most important factor to the success of the business analyst.
Communicating with the Interviewee
The most important factor in the success of the interview is of course the interviewee. The business analyst needs access to their knowledge and skills. They are the ones who know what the true requirements are to ensure the success of any solution.
Business analysts are there to provide communication between the users and IT. They should understand that users can be intimidated by IT, and the business analyst should behave sympathetically to their feelings. Any change can be fearful to the users, and the business analyst should behave in a way that is sensitive to their potential fears.
The interviewee can be motivated by their fears and needs on one side, but also by their hopes and ambitions on the other, and above all by the need to be understood. They want to know how any changes will impact upon their job, responsibilities, influence and even power. Senior managers will be concerned about their power base. Professionals and more junior staff will be worried about job satisfaction, and ultimately job security.
Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in Interviews
Business analysts need to have an understanding of the way in which people’s beliefs and needs operate within their minds. One model for understanding this is called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This is illustrated by the pyramid in the diagram.
The pyramid illustrates begins with basic survival at the bottom, through to our highest aspirational needs at the top. At the bottom we can see the need for sustenance. This is the basic need for good health and a basic salary which will enable us to live comfortably. This is the minimum in a modern society.
Above this, we would like stability. No one likes change unless we are initiating the change and can control it. We desire security and confidence in the future. We dislike the unknown. We would like to know that we have the future planned out. This can work out in practice as, for example, having a superannuation plan.
Once we have the basics met, then we want to know that we are valuable and are making a contribution. Friendship and belonging are measures of that self-worth. These can work out as being part of a working team or group of friends.
Our esteem can be fully met when we believe we are respected and have status within our situation, either at work or among our friends. A practical example would be a senior job title which demands respect.
The ultimate need is to know that we have achieved our dreams, or have a challenging job, or completed a task which was very difficult. These confirm our highest aspirations.
Communicating with Different Kinds of Interviewees
Now let’s consider what happens during the interview with the interviewee. The business analyst should be aware of the body language, the dress code, behaviour and verbal language of the interviewee. These are ways to understand their desires, their needs and even their agendas.
Be careful not to stereotype people by these parameters. Some anxiety during an interview is common and should not be thought of as a permanent feature of their personality.
The business analyst should adjust the approach to the interview according to what is detected. Impatience and anger should be dealt with tactfully, but firmly because we still have a job to do. Anxiety and fearfulness should be counteracted with friendliness and reassurance. If the interviewee appears to be dishonest, misleading or to have a hidden agenda, then the business analyst should be asking questions more closely and confirm any answers from another source where possible.
Combating Interviewer Bias
The interviewer should be aware of their own biases and preconceptions of the situation and not allow them to interfere with a neutral attitude to investigating what the true requirements are. To be biased will prevent the business analyst from gathering the true requirements, instead of the requirements they believe the user wants. These will inevitably be incorrect.
Sources of bias would be the business analyst’s education, upbringing, intellectual attitudes and emotions. Being professional at all times will ensure that a good attitude will deduce the real requirements that are needed to provide the correct solution to the users.
How to Act in a Business Analyst Interview
The interviewer should understand and adjust to the interviewees personality and motivation. They should endeavour to win their confidence, respect and ultimately their cooperation. As we’ve said already it is imperative that the users have confidence in the business analyst and the job they will do in documenting their requirements, needs and aspirations. They are trusting the business analyst with their future.
The business analyst must actively listen to the user and know what they are actually saying. They must not impose their own judgements or beliefs on top of what the interviewer is actually saying. It’s imperative that the truth about what the user is saying comes through in the requirements. Otherwise the business analyst will fail and the requirements will be rejected by the users and not signed off.
Preparing a Business Analyst Interview
What to do Before the Interview?
So let’s have a look at a few steps that should be followed by the business analyst before going into the interview.
The first step is always to examine existing documentation where it exists. Look for the language and terminology used by managers and stakeholders. Try to build a common understanding of the current system, processes and environment in which users operate. It will help to build relationships and establish the confidence of the users, if we show that we already have some knowledge of their situation and can accurately use their jargon.
Be careful not to use their jargon unless you truly understand what it means. It can be very embarrassing when you are picked up for use in a term incorrectly. Users often believe everyone understands their terminology.
Second step is to define the objectives of the interview. There is no point setting up a meeting unless it has an objective and success can be measured, so that we know when we have achieved what we set out to do.
Establish in advance who are the correct people to interview. The business analyst at this point should halve developed an understanding of who the key users of the system are, and who has the most complete knowledge of the requirements.
Consideration should be given to those who seek to impede the project, and a strategy should be developed as to how to deal with them. They should not be ignored, because they can justifiably complain that their requirements were not taken into account. Equally their opposition should be taken into account when interviewing or interacting with them in any way. They must be included in the analysis process.
Preparing to Interview Stakeholders
The next step is to prepare the interviewee for the interview. The best way to allay their fears or their opposition is to inform them of the objectives and expectations placed upon them in advance. Once they understand the interview will take place and why it must take place, give them time to think about how they will approach the interview so that they can define any issues they have in advance. That way they can have confidence that they can make a contribution to the interview.
The final step is to decide what type of structure to give the interview. For example, do we need to ask open questions which will elicit opinions, ideas and potential issues. Alternatively, are we just after facts and figures and should be asking closed questions which have short definite answers. Should the interview be highly structured because it’s a formal meeting, or can it be conducted in an unstructured manner even over a coffee.
Open vs Closed Questions for a Business Analyst Interview
Pros & Cons of Open Questions
This brings us to the question of open and closed questions and which to use.
Open questions are used when we do not know what the answer is likely to be. When we want to obtain rich detailed explanations of how the system works, to reveal the needs interests and opinions of the users in detail. When we want to pick up vocabulary beliefs and values of the interviewee. They also help to put the interviewee at ease allowing them to express themselves in their own way.
The disadvantage of course is that we will get some details that are irrelevant, we lose some control over the interview and they are more time-consuming. However, it is often necessary to accept these disadvantages.
Pros & Cons of Closed Questions
Closed questions are used when we know there are only a few valid answers and we need to know what the definitive correct answer is. For example, where the answer is a definitive yes or no, or where the answer is a single number.
The advantages of closed questions are that they are quick, they allow us to control the interview, all the detail is relevant and it is easy to compare answers with other interviewees. The disadvantage here is that they do not provide the rich data we might need, highlight key issues we might not be aware of, they do not help to build rapport with the user and can be quite boring.
Questioning Techniques for a Business Analyst Interview
There are some rules that must be obeyed when we ask questions. Always use probing questions to elicit the answer that is needed.
Always avoid leading questions that suggest to the user that we want a certain answer, or that a certain type of answer is the correct one.
Always go prepared with a list of questions to be asked. This enables subjects to be tackled in logical order. It also avoids long silences when we reach the end of a topic while the business analyst is thinking of what the next topic should be.
A useful technique to ensure that you have all the detail and have understood it, is reflection. To do a reflection you repeat the answer back to the user to make sure that you have understood it correctly. For example, we can say, “Let me make sure I have this straight. You send an email to the client, then…”.
Structured vs Unstructured Interviews
Let’s have a look at structured and unstructured interviews.
Structured interviews are very formal with all questions planned in advance. The same wording and word order is followed, very formally and all interviewees are asked the same questions.
Unstructured interviews cover general topics of discussion. They may be planned to some extent but not as rigidly as a structured interview. The order and wording of questions is not rigidly planned. There is more scope for allowing the user to express themselves in their own words.
Structured interviews tend to be used with senior managers who expect certain behaviours and processes to be followed. Unstructured interviews are more common with junior users who actually use the system and have detailed knowledge we seek.
What Not To Do When Conducting An Interview
This slide might seem obvious to anyone who has worked as a business analyst before, but it must be said. There are certain things we never do as business analysts conducting an interview. We do not argue with the user, lose our temper, appear to be superior to them in any way, criticise their answers or enter conjecture into their answer. These are simple things to avoid which can expose the business analyst as being unprofessional, and can disrupt the relationship with the stakeholders.
Do not use inappropriate jargon, such as complex IT terminology. This can intimidate the user.
An essential practice is not to move on to another topic until you have fully understood the current subject. It can be difficult to return to the topic later with the same user.
Finally, it is essential never to assume that we are getting the whole truth from a single user. Answers should always be corroborated from more than one source wherever possible.
Wrapping Up Interviews
To complete our webinar today let’s just recap some of the golden rules that we’ve discussed in our travels.
Don’t believe everything you told, but corroborate everything that you are told against another source if possible.
Reflect back the main points to the user if there is any doubt about understanding exactly what was said.
Finally, at the end of all interviews, the business analyst should send an email or some kind of communication to the interviewee with notes about the main points that were discussed. This has two purposes. One is to give you the confidence that what you have gathered as requirements is sound. The second is that even if the requirements do not have to be signed off, the interviewee cannot change their mind later and claim that that is not what they said. The email acts as a confirmation of what was said even if no signoff his required. It gives some protection to the business analyst that the requirements are accurate, and cannot be denied by the interviewee later.
In the course, you’ll role play mock interviews and receive feedback on your interviewing techniques, allowing you to grow and better your skills.