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Why Don’t They Get It? Understanding Learning Preferences for Better Business Analysis

I am not a visual person.

This came to light early in my career when a stakeholder came to me with a beautiful diagram full of lines and colors and a few keywords. He handed me the picture and very proudly stated, “Here. This is what we want to do”, and then walked off. I stared at it for the longest time. There may have been tears. I spent hours translating that beautiful nightmare into written language trying to figure out what I was being told. My stakeholder was attempting to communicate with me the most efficient way he knew how, and yet I had a huge disconnect. There was no shared understanding. Eventually, I did figure it out, but it was a very frustrating process.

I never saw any value in images, so until this defining moment, I saw no value in including them in requirements. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but my question is, which thousand and what do you mean by them? For me, only words could answer that. Visuals just took up space and duplicated information that was already there.

Now I have much more empathy for those who rely on those symbolic representations. That one interaction started me on my search to incorporate all learning preferences into my business analysis processes. There was a lot of information on adapting teaching styles for each type of learner, but I could not find good examples of utilizing different techniques for different learning styles outside the classroom. Most people can absorb basic information through any method, but complicated material is easier to understand and retain when communicated in their preferred method(s).

Learning preferences can be categorized in several ways. However, for purposes of this discussion I will use:

  • Visual – Preference toward pictures, images, and spatial understanding
  • Auditory – Preference toward sound and music
  • Linguistic – Preference toward spoken and written language
  • Kinesthetic – Preference toward body, hands, and sense of touch

Most people have a combination of the above learning preferences. However, Business Analysts are a communication bridge for everyone on a project, so we don’t get to have a weaker area. We must learn to work within all learning preferences, regardless of our own personal style.

My first step was to take a free online self-assessment. My results were not all that surprising – Read/Write 13, Aural 8, Kinesthetic 5, Visual 1. That’s right. A one. No wonder mind maps trigger hyperventilation and all sorts of other stress responses! Unfortunately for me, visual is one of the most common learning styles. I needed to learn to speak that language quickly. I wasn’t going to become fluent overnight, but I at least needed to become proficient.

So, what’s a BA to do?

I now knew how crucial it was to start using visual aids. I created a guide to help me remember how to use several common diagramming tools. I started by using illustrations that were similar to my preferred linguistic style such as process flows and matrices, then expanded from there. I often refer to my catalog of visual aids for ideas on how to bring that aspect into my requirements as well as a reminder before joining large group meetings.

I’ve seen a lot of success since I consciously started considering diagrams and other images in requirements. I’m getting more feedback. I take that to mean more people are reading and approving the content rather than just approving to stop my nagging. I’m still not able to start with creating a visual rather than text, but maybe it is like a foreign language and I can get there with enough practice. I take consolation that I’m helping everyone get to that mutual understanding.

What are your learning style preferences? Are there any that you would like to improve?

Look for ideas in the lists below if you are struggling with a specific audience. Turn to your peers as well. If you notice someone skillfully incorporates a learning style, ask them for some ideas to expand your communication strategy or ask them to be a test audience when you try out a new technique. Once we’re aware of our own learning style preferences as well as those of our stakeholders, it becomes much easier to spot potential misunderstandings earlier or prevent them entirely – saving time, minimizing frustration, avoiding rework and helping us achieve a successful project.

Visual (learn through seeing)

Visual learners prefer:

  • Drawing pictures on the whiteboard
  • Organizing concepts into separate areas on the whiteboard to create “piles” that can be worked through
  • Color coding
  • Including diagrams of overall concepts in requirements documentation

How you can get there:

  • Allow yourself time to translate into a picture.
  • Arrive early for key meetings to create models on whiteboards or allow pre-meeting prep time to create images that can be shared virtually.
  • Write a legend for color coding and reference it as you write.
  • Review documentation to find areas that can be displayed pictorially.


Auditory (learn through hearing)

Ever had someone ask to discuss an email or an invite, even with a clear agenda? I had a Project Manager that was an egregious offender. Every email, instant message and meeting invite sent was followed by a call. Everything was discussed at length until she understood. She is a purely auditory learner.

Auditory learners prefer:

  • Earworms
  • Minimizing silence during meetings
  • Repeating things out loud
  • Meeting in person rather than discuss through email

How you can get there:

  • Keep and follow a meeting agenda so that you always know what to discuss next. (Always a good idea regardless of who is in the meeting.)
  • Incorporate music where appropriate, such as at the beginning of a workshop while people are finding their seats.
  • Ask the auditory learning participant to summarize the meeting or concept just discussed.
  • When creating an email, offer to be available for a brief call or meeting to discuss or clarify.

Linguistic (learn through language)

Linguistic learners prefer:

  • Clear & precise written documentation
  • Exactly the right word to express a concept
  • Lists

How you can get there:

  • Provide summary talking points or step by step instructions with visual aids and demonstrations presented in meetings.
  • Use illustrations with a verbal component such as grids and process flows.
  • Keep a glossary.
  • Use unfamiliar terms regularly to reinforce their significance.
  • Review pictorial documentation to verify all requirements in the image are also put in writing.

Kinesthetic (learning through doing)

User Acceptance Testing is a wonderful time to leverage the kinesthetic learning style.

Kinesthetic learners prefer:

  • Demonstrations
  • New skill practice
  • Content in bite-sized chunks
  • Frequent breaks and activities that provide opportunities for movement during longer meetings

How you can get there:

  • Add activities such as role-playing to meetings.
  • Use a prop that can be moved around (sticky notes, ball, modeling clay, etc.).
  • Incorporate real-life stories and examples
  • Try collaborative games.