Observing the user experience: How to conduct the ultimate BA technique in the field

User Observation Requirements copy

If you’re a Business Analyst looking to deliver EXACTLY what the user wants, then this is the article for you.

In fact if you’re working in a software house and your users are based across the country, or even the world.

Then this is definitely the post for you.

By sticking to these simple yet effective guidelines, I guarantee you will be able to deliver a system that is and continues to be a market leader.

By implementing this techniques at my current place of work, it has given me unrivalled knowledge of HOW and WHY people are using our system.

And even better than that it’s shown me where I can implement the slightest Improvements for MAXIMUM gain to the user.

All this despite having ZERO knowledge of the system at the time of joining just 6 months earlier.

AND having zero knowledge of the industry.

So in this post I’m telling you exactly how you can get out of your software house ivory tower and tap into the user’s mind, who are spread around the country (or world) to give them exactly what they don’t yet know they want.

I’m also telling you WHY you need to do it

Not only that.

I’m even going to tell you why you MUST NOT develop functionality that a user simply requests.

Observing users in the workplace

Firstly, here’s how a fellow BA got his User observation Requirements in this way.

A number of years ago, my colleague was gathering requirements for software that was installed locally at thousands of stores.

But he had a director who didn’t see the benefit of visiting customers to ask them what they want.

I understand why – he thought that BA’s just implement everything the customer asked for without thinking about the actual problem we were trying to solve.

However, after some persuasion he was able to organise a trip to the user’s area of work – their store.

So this was a special trip and therefore required some special preparation

While at the store he made sure he asked lots of questions about the process

Also did some observations

And BOOM – the result, the simplest piece of functionality that he came up with after realising that one of their manual processes could be implemented into our system in just one week.

Even better – this wasn’t even what the user thought they required.

So where do you start with YOUR user requirements?

This is something I realised quite early on in my Business Analyst career and by knowing it – I’m now so much more likely to get a visit to the users than anyone.

See the truth is:

If you work internally for a large company who are developing a system for internal use, then getting observations shouldn’t be much of a problem. They still can be a little awkward but fairly easy to organise.

Yet if you work in a software house i.e. behind closed doors  then getting visits to users who are actually you’re paying customers can be fairly difficult.

And this means that if you want to understand the current business processes that the system is used for, then you MUST be willing to organise an observation YOURSELF.

There is very little likelihood that your manager will come to you and say “why don’t you go and see ____________.” So you need to go to them and you need to do it NOW.

First ask your manager who is best to talk to.

If they don’t know, your company will almost certainly hire Account managers for customers

These are the people who talk to users all day every day, so just ask “who is the head account manager?” and then go and get in touch with him.


How to explain the benefits of observing user requirements


You won’t get any access to the users if you don’t do this. When you’ve found the right person to talk to, you need to tell them your goals. In fact, you need to tell them the benefits of doing what you want to do.

Remember, account managers are there to please the customers, so if you can tell them something that will allow them to please the customer – you’re in!

Some of the benefits to account managers include:

  • Showing you’re interested in what their customers have to say
  • Showing you give their customers a better understanding of the system
  • Discuss some of the additional features – so the account manager doesn’t have to
  • Tell them you can help them out with requirements for customers in the future

Type of users you might want to visit

If you do this properly you will have a much more productive visit. Why because you will be able to get tons of information that you might not get from another type of user.

This is simple really, all you need to do is ask for a user that is full of ideas and willing to talk to you while they work.

I’ve done many visits where I get to their place of work and they’ve been just too busy to give me any information. And they’re constantly stressed about letting one of their team stop working in order to talk.

So the people that give the best information are those who want to get involved in the future generation of software.

It’s also much better when the user is relaxed and experienced in their role so they can talk to you and work all at the same time. Because you will be able to spend much longer in their environment and they won’t mind you being there.

Not only because you can watch them work but also because they will remember different things while they work too.


Pre prepare your questions and goals

If you do these visits on a regular basis, you won’t need too much preparation but you will need to remember your goals of the meeting.

Imagine: you drive a long way and you come back empty handed with none of the answers you needed then it will be a bit frustrating.

So it’s down to you from here on in.

Ask yourself

  • What specific requirements am I trying to gather?
  • Is there a specific part of the process I need to ask about?
  • What projects are going on at the moment that I need to input to?
  • What is happening in the industry that might impact the way people work in the future?

Once you have this, you can review the related documents.

And schweet – before you know it you’ve got two full A4 sides of questions ready to pounce.

Remember, this is only the beginning, an array of questions will come to you as you talk through the process and watch the people do their jobs.

Also ask your manager, is there anything you want me to find out on my visit, that way you can kill two birds with one stone and even better your ability to write requirements will improve drastically.

One last tip before I move on to tell you how you might manage the day for maximum effect.

Make sure your questions are open ended, that way the chances of awkward silence are drastically reduced.



The day of the user observation visit

It’s the moment you’ve been waiting for. The day where you can collect more information in just a few hours than you would ever get from sitting at your desk in a hidden software house for two weeks.


If you don’t follow these simple rules, it won’t be the case.

So here goes.

Start your day as normal. By this I mean get up at the same time or only a little earlier, eat your breakfast and make sure you’re fully prepared for the day ahead.

By doing so, you won’t get too tired during the



After the User Observation visit.

Doing this will allow create a long term relationship with the best users.

They will no doubt be a few questions that the user will want you to take away with you for further investigation. So be prepared for that.


Make sure you follow up with and email or phone call in response to the queries you took away from the day.

If you need to speak to other people in your business, then do so.

It will make you look pro-active and you may even learn something new in the meantime, so when the same query crops up again on another user observation, you’ll be ready for it and be able to show off your new fond knowledge.


Take Action today and get out to your users tomorrow

So there you have it, some simple yet effective approaches to learning about how users are using your software that YOU need to write requirements for.

Don’t waste any more time guessing your requirements without absorbing yourself into the situation of your users.

You will soon understand how differently each person is using the system – especially if they are scattered across different countries.

Here’s your action list in short

  • Contact an account manager
  • Tell them the benefits of you making a store visit
  • Prepare for the observation – maybe try to fit in 3 or 4 visits over a couple of days if its far away
  • Get out there and observe – ask lots of questions
  • Follow up with the users

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