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Methods for Eliciting – Not Gathering – Requirements

methods-for-elicitingThe word “gather” does not truly communicate the nature of the Business Analyst’s (BA) job. You do not gather requirements-they are not just lying around on the ground waiting to be picked up.

The word “elicit” more closely matches the job, because it connotes a more active role for both the BA and for those with whom the BA works. The dictionary defines elicit as:

  1. To draw forth or bring out (something latent or potential)
  2. To call forth or draw out (as information or a response)

There are many ways to elicit requirements from your stakeholders. A BA should be proficient in all of these: interviews, workshops, focus groups, brainstorming, observation, and surveys/questionnaires. While all of these methods involve three basic parts: preparation, conducting, and follow-up, they do have differences.


Interviews, either with an individual or with a group of people, offer the opportunity for rich, detailed communication.


  • Define interview goal: Determine exactly why you are holding the interview and what you want to achieve in it.
  • Select participants: Decide who needs to be involved in the interview in order to achieve that goal.
  • Determine logistics: When and where will the interview be held, and how will the interviewees be invited?
  • Design the interview: Decide on the format that is most appropriate for the interviewees and the goal. Should it be structured with a detailed agenda and formal set of questions, or unstructured with a looser agenda, depending more on ad hoc interaction? Should the questions be open-ended requiring sentences or paragraphs to answer, or closed-ended requiring short, even one-word answers?

Conduct the Interview

Take time at the beginning to ensure that the interviewee(s) knows the purpose of the interview, who you are, and what your role is. Wrap up the interview with questions like “Is there anything else you would like to add?” and a hearty “Thank you!”

Follow up

Like any other meeting, interview minutes should be published. This allows the interviewees to see what you learned in the interview and validate that what you heard is what they intended to say.


A workshop is a structured method for interacting with a group of people. Workshops can generate much information quickly if well facilitated and if participants are active.

Prepare for Workshop

  • Define purpose: Determine exactly why you are holding the workshop and what you want to achieve in it.
  • Select participants: Decide who needs to participate in the workshop in order to achieve that purpose. Make sure to consider the personality types involved and ensure that you’ll get participation from the entire group, not just a few dominant people.
  • Determine logistics: When and where will the workshop be held, and how will the participants be invited?
  • Conduct preliminary interviews: Some workshop methods include collecting some information from the participants before the workshop to provide a starting point. Such methods provide specific guidance about what preliminary information should be collected.

Conduct the Workshop

Be sure to accurately capture all of the information that the workshop produces. Depending on the size of the group, you may want to assign a record-keeper so you can focus on facilitation

Follow up

Some types of workshops result in the assignment of action items to the facilitator or participants, in which case, they must be managed to closure. The workshop results should be published so the participants and other interested parties can see what you learned in the workshop.

Focus Groups

A focus group is an interactive session with a carefully selected group of people designed to capitalize on the synergy of a group.

Prepare for the Focus Group

  • Select participants: Decide who needs to participate in the focus group in order to achieve its purpose.
  • Define roles, topics, and logistics: Define who (among the people running the focus group) must do what, and the specific topics that the participants will discuss. Also define the basic logistics such as when and where the focus group will be held, and how the participants will be invited.

Run the Focus Group

Carefully facilitate the group to ensure free and open interaction among the participants. Participants must feel free to interact openly or the focus group could fail.

Follow up

The focus group report records what was learned, including both agreements and disagreements among the participants.


Brainstorming is a method of quickly generating many creative ideas from a group of people.

Prepare for Brainstorming

  • Define topics and time limits: Define precisely what will be the focus of the brainstorming session, and how long it will be allowed to go on.
  • Select participants: Decide who needs to participate in the brainstorming session in order to achieve its purpose.
  • Determine evaluation criteria: Decide how the ideas that come out of the brainstorming session will be judged afterward. Be sure that the evaluation does not go on during the brainstorming session.

Conduct Brainstorming

Encourage a free flow of ideas. This requires careful facilitation to ensure that participants feel comfortable with adding any idea to the list, and that no criticism or even discussion of the ideas goes on during the brainstorming session.

Follow up

Apply the evaluation criteria to the ideas that were generated to reduce the list to only those ideas that are reasonable or viable.


Observation is watching people as they go about their jobs. Observation can be an effective way to gain a realistic and detailed understanding of how work is done in the production environment; however, it is time consuming and may disrupt work.

Prepare for Observation

  • Define goals and individuals to be observed: Decide what you are trying to accomplish in the observation and who you should observe in order to achieve those goals
  • Decide on mode: Observation may be done in either of two ways:
    • Passive/invisible: Observing in a way that does not disturb the workers. “Invisible” refers to the fact that the workers are not even aware that observation is taking place.
    • Active/visible: Interacting with those who are being observed. For example, asking questions and having them describe what they are doing and why.


If people believe that they are being evaluated, they are likely to do the work “by the book,” instead of the way they normally do it. So those who are being observed must be assured that the observation is not for the purpose of judging them. As the observation goes on, keep detailed records of what is observed and questions that must be answered later.

Follow up

After obtaining answers to any remaining questions, publish the results of the observation.


Surveys allow you to collect information from many people in a relatively short period. A survey can be an effective way to collect quantitative information; however, writing the questions requires great skill and care to avoid ambiguity that could compromise the utility of the results.

Prepare for the Survey

  • Define purpose, target people, and logistics: Decide what you are trying to learn from the survey, who you should target in order to achieve those goals, and how the survey should be distributed (for example, paper, e-mail, internet, telephone).
  • Choose survey type:
    • Open-ended questions vs. closed-ended questions: Open-ended surveys are more difficult to analyze, yet closed-ended surveys limit the responders’ options.
    • Anonymous vs. signed vs. optional: People may be more forthcoming if they do not have to provide their names, but anonymity does not allow for any follow-up questioning.
    • With vs. without pre-survey or post-survey interviews: Pre-survey and post-survey interviews increase the valuable data that you can get from the survey, but add significant effort.
  • Define target response level and follow-up activities: Getting many people to respond to a survey is difficult. If you are expecting more than a small minority of the target people to respond, it will require follow-up work beyond merely distributing the survey.
  • Write questions: This step is more challenging than it sounds. Writing questions that cannot be misinterpreted (resulting in misleading results) requires great skill and concentrated effort.
  • Test the survey: Because it is so difficult to write questions well, it is advisable to test the survey to see if people misinterpret any of the questions, and to see if it provides the information that is sought.

Distribute the Survey

Get the survey into the target people’s hands, and encourage them to respond. If follow-up activities are planned to increase the response rates, do them.

Follow up

After the response period has ended, analyze the data, and summarize and report it to the appropriate people.

Jill Liles is the Senior Product Marketing Manager at Global Knowledge http://www.globalknowledge, where she primarily focuses on marketing activities for Cisco training courses. She also coordinates all marketing for Canada. In her spare time she volunteers with her local Susan G. Komen Foundation affiliate and crafts jewelry. This article draws from Global Knowledge’s Requirements Development and Management course.

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