Information Gathering


If your customer interview questions focus too narrowly on a problem that must be solved, you run the risk of missing information that could be critical to a successful outcome. In this column, Naomi Karten says playing detective improves your ability to gather information. To improve the odds of success, it's important to ask questions from multiple perspectives—and to pay attention not only to the customers' response, but to how they say it as well.

When clients ask me how to devise good information-gathering questions to ask their customers, one of several approaches I suggest is to mix project-focused questions with customer-focused questions. First, I'll describe a related aspect of information gathering that was reinforced for me as I read Stephen White's psychological thriller, Cold Case—no relation to the TV show of the same name.

In the heart of the story during the investigation of a crime, the psychologist/narrator Alan sits in on an interview his cop-friend Sam conducts with a witness. Alan is intrigued by how different Sam's interview technique is from his own. Alan observes that "the most glaring difference between a psychologist-interviewer and a cop-interviewer is that the cop treasures the facts more than the psychologist does." Alan explains he avoids allowing the facts of the case to masquerade as the truth, because truth sometimes bears little resemblance to his patients' recall of the facts. By contrast, facts are precisely what Sam seeks. For Sam, facts are the key to solving the case.

Facts vs. Facial Expressions
As Alan observes Sam's technique—"guiding, prodding, probing"—he notes numerous instances where he would have followed a different path. For example, a barely detectable expression of anger "would have warranted a diversion" to find out what caused it. The fingernails the witness dug into her skin would have prompted him to ask, "What is that about?" But Sam's attention was riveted on the factual details of the witness's experience: the setting, people in the vicinity, what she and others were wearing, what she did first, next, and so on.

In reflecting on Sam's approach, Alan concluded that it wasn't actually these mundane details that were important. Rather, what Sam was trying to do was to spur the witness to "stretch her mental muscles" so as to recall facts that might otherwise remain hidden—and that might be germane to solving the case.

Although a criminal investigation is not exactly the most appropriate analogy for IT—although some of you might disagree—both the cop's focus on facts and the psychologist's focus on behavioral nuances are relevant to IT information gathering. Both orientations are useful in the approach I mentioned above, regarding asking project-focused and customer-focused questions.

Project-Focused Questions
Start by identifying categories of issues that may have a bearing on project success. Then prepare a list of questions for each category. These are cop questions; their purpose is to surface aspects of the project that customers might not otherwise think to mention.

When I suggest this approach to my clients, some of the categories of questions they identify include: business, equipment, scheduling, staffing, risks, constraints, government regulations, third parties, security, timing, benefits, workload distribution, company policy, external parties, start-up, and existing procedures.

Questions relative to three of these categories might include:

  • Business
    1. What issues could cause the problem to grow or change in ways that we ought to consider?
    2. What are the pros and cons of leaving things as they are right now?
  • Risks
    1. What does this project entail that is especially new or different?
    2. What complications have you experienced in past projects of this kind?
  • Timing
    1. What seasonal demands does your division face that could affect response time?
    2. What would be the consequences—both positive and negative—of waiting until next year to address this problem?

There's no one right category for any given question. The final category is really irrelevant. What's important is creating the widest possible range of open-ended, thought-provoking questions that might help to surface relevant issues. Of course, you have no way of knowing which questions will yield useful information and which won't. One of my clients described a time when a project-focused question from her list prompted her customer to reveal a key language translation issue in a global project. Therefore, the best course is to emulate Sam the cop-guide, prod, and probe to gather as many facts as possible.

But as you do so, let your inner psychologist pay attention to how customers respond to each question. Do they frown? Wince? Smile? Shudder? Laugh heartily? Laugh nervously? Do they start speaking faster or slower, or in a louder or softer voice? Do their eyes widen? Do they bolt from the room?

These reactions may have nothing to do with the project, so don't jump to conclusions. But if you notice a reaction that seems curious, or is a striking change from previous behavior, you might do as Alan the psychologist does. Ask, "What concerns you about that question? Does that question trigger something for you?" Then ask the person to explain. Or as Alan suggests, simply ask, "What is that about?"

Customer-Focused Questions
Balance project-focused questions with questions regarding customers' perceptions, expectations, hopes, fears, and so on. Consider these questions:

  1. What is the most troubling aspect of this problem for you?
  2. What is unusual (or unique or striking) for you about this project?
  3. What is the most important aspect of this problem (or the ultimate solution) for you?
  4. What is your biggest fear (worry, hope, aspiration) about this project?
  5. What is important to you in how we work with you on this project?
  6. What have you experienced in past projects that you'd like to see (or avoid) in this project?
  7. What will you be looking for when the system has been implemented that will enable you to feel it's successful?
  8. What will your management look for?

These questions focus on what's important to the customers, matters that, if not detected early in the effort, can lead to dissatisfaction with the outcome even if all the facts of the case are addressed. Some of these questions will feed the cop's need to know the facts; others will generate reactions for the psychologist to inquire about. Both can strengthen your understanding of the undertaking.

As you conduct your information-gathering sessions, ask questions from both the cop and the psychologist perspective. You might be surprised with the wealth of relevant information that surfaces.

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