Fact finding is at the heart of the business analyst’s job. One of the most popular and effective means of fact finding is the interview. Knowing how to interview is a core technique for the business analyst to master.
Admittedly interviews do have their limitations and should be used in combination with other techniques such as facilitated workshops, but they are nevertheless very valuable; at least, they are when it is used properly.
Even if you work in an agile environment that focuses on facilitated workshops, you will find that one to interviews are a useful alternative, or supplement; this is particularly true when dealing with senior managers.
An interview is also valuable when trying to get detailed information from someone; you probably do not need a group of people to help you do this.
This article provides simple guidelines for conducting effective interviews. As with many things, running an effective interview starts with effective planning and preparation. Following that, you can conduct and follow up the interview.
BOSCARD. I introduced BOSCARD in the article on presentations. This can easily be adapted to preparing for an interview. Obviously the amount and time spent on preparation needs to be proportional to the job at hand.
Objectives. At the very least you should be clear on the objective of the interview and what information you want to gather. As soon as you think you know that, ask yourself if an interview is the best way of obtaining that information or would a workshop or questionnaire be more efficient and effective. Being clear on the objective(s) of the interview will help you know what you need to come away with and what success will look like. It will help you to structure the interview into topics and questions.
Interviewee. When planning a presentation, you need to know your audience. For an interview you will normally have an audience of one, occasionally two. During the interview you will be taking that person away from their usual job. Make sure that you understand what that job is and the seniority level of the job holder. Thorough planning and preparation of your interview should:
- minimise the time that you will need to request from the interviewee
- maximise the benefit to yourself and to your project
If you need the interviewee to bring anything to the interview, let them know in advance.
If you are at the start of planning a series of interviews, decide on the roles and possibly the individuals that you will need to obtain information from. You will typically want to start with the most senior people to get the big picture and perhaps the authority to interview their team. Senior people can sometimes become unavailable at short notice because of things that crop in the business. Try to get these people onto your calendar early but do not be surprised if it turns out that they become the last people that you actually interview.
Scope. It is important to go into an interview with a clear set of prioritised and sequenced set of topics that you want to cover. When planning the interview, identify and prioritise your topics. All topics should relate to the overall objective of the interview. We will return to this when considering timings for the interview. Also, decide on the level of detail that you need and ensure that this is appropriate to the role and position of the interviewee.
Constraints. This relates particularly to the date, the time and the location. The date needs to be agreed with the interviewee or their PA. Normally an interview will last between 30 and 60 minutes. Agree this with the interviewee. Another constraint is the number of interviewers; normally this is just one person but occasionally it may be advantageous to have two – we will return to this point later.
Deliverables. What needs to come out of the interview? Physically this will be the notes and perhaps sample documents gathered from the interviewee. Also consider what you want to come away with in non-physical terms; for example, if you have just interviewed the project sponsor for the first time, you probably want them to go away confident that you are the right person for the job.
Sequence the set of topics that you identified during planning. When preparing the interview, start with the most important topics in case you run out of time. Try to ensure that there is a logical flow between topics and, if you have them, between sub-topics.
Once you have the topics in sequence, consider what your key, or opening, question will be for each topic. Try not to write down too many questions in advance; an interview is about listening and responding, so keep detail to the minimum necessary for achieving your objectives. However, if there are important supplementary questions, make a note of those too. This is shown on the accompanying diagram.
If there are sensitive topics to be covered, you will probably want to tackle them later in the interview, once rapport is established. If you started a series of interviews by speaking to the sponsor, they might have warned you about potentially difficult areas; ask the sponsor directly if they are aware of any difficult or sensitive areas.
You should also create a time plan. During the interview, it is important that you do not exceed the time allocated for each topic. When planning the timings, you can quickly and easily see if your scope is too ambitious. Consider the accompanying diagram which shows the interview plan in the form of a grid.
The topics are laid out left to right in priority order. As mentioned earlier, the typical time for an interview is between 30 and 60 minutes. You will normally allow a brief period for the introduction and a slightly longer period for wrapping it up. For the example, I have allowed a total of fifteen minutes for these two items.
The example in the grid indicates that I am planning to cover three topics, and, to simplify the example, have allocated an equal amount of time, i.e. fifteen minutes, to each of them. If I have sub-topics, you can easily see from the grid that I could be pressed for time.
An interview should be as brief as possible but you do not want to rush it; better to reduce the scope and, if necessary, plan a series of interviews to capture all of the required information; perhaps each will involve different staff and different degrees of detail, as appropriate to the particular interviewees.
You can of course send your interview plan and key questions in advance to the interviewee. They can tell you if they are the best person to talk to. They might, for example, tell you that for the information you require you need to speak to a more senior person. Alternatively, they may suggest someone with a better understanding of the detail that you need. Perhaps your intended interviewee might even send you an immediate answer to all or some of your questions as well as possibly providing other information that they feel is relevant.
It is often useful to plan the introduction and summary for your interview after you have completed your planning for the body of the interview.
Conducting the interview
The statement that ‘You only get one chance to make a first impression’ is normally true. If the interview will be the first time that you have met the interviewee, you should take that statement to heart, particularly if your interviewee is a senior manager. Apart from anything else, it is basic politeness to turn up on time; it is also professional behaviour.
At the outset, check that the interviewee understands what the interview is about. The interview may have been put on the calendar by their PA so do not take anything for granted about the interviewee may or may not know or have remembered. Check that they are still ok for time.
The body of the interview
Follow your interview plan. Place it on the desk in front of you so that the interviewee can see it; this will also remind them, if necessary, about how much time has passed and how much you still wish to cover. Having the plan on the desk, rather than clutched close to your chest or chin, should allow you to talk more freely and naturally; it also makes it easier for you to take notes on a separate note pad.
You have a timing plan to follow but be relaxed and do not pressurise the interviewee. Build up a rapport as quickly as possible.
Ensure that your questions are open. Open questions are those that allow the interviewee to speak. Examples of open questions are,
- “Could you take me through the steps of this task”.
- “Could you tell me how you manage to control all that activity during the busy periods”.
Ok, they may just answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the above, but they are unlikely to.
Closed questions are those that invite yes or no answers. For example, “I understand that you always check 100% of the samples – is that correct?
Be very careful with certain forms of closed question. For example, a statement such as, “I understand that there have been big problems with stock control since you took over. Is that true?”, is unlikely to do anything positive for the rapport!
Listen carefully at all times. Let your body language show that you are listening and that you interested. If you start thinking about other things or are distracted by something happening outside the window, you may well miss something vital and it is hard to recover from that; you may not even realise that you have missed something vital. Periodically confirm your understanding verbally, or by nodding; be aware that different cultures may interpret a nod differently from how you do.
Whilst following your plan and your timings, be prepared to respond to something that was said and go off plan when necessary. You are listening for ‘leads’. A lead is something that prompts you to ask for additional information. It will not be on your plan. In fact, it may conflict with information that had before coming to the interview.
Also be prepared to supply feeds. These are prompts to the interviewee to supply information, perhaps based on something they said earlier. Feeds will not be on your plan.
If you do not understand something that the interviewee said, it is vital that you ask for an explanation. Do not be afraid of saying that you do not know; far worse is to pretend that you do.
Note taking can be a challenge, particularly if the interviewee talks a lot and / or talks rapidly. However senior the interviewee, you are in charge of the interview. Where necessary, ask the interviewee to give you a moment to make a note of something; apart from anything else, it shows you are interested in what is being said.
Do not forget to ask the interviewee if it is ok with them that you take notes. They may ask what you intend to do with them and who might see them. You reassure them by telling them that you will let them see the write up of the interview before releasing the information. At certain points in the interview, they may tell you that something is ‘Off the record’.
If you have the resources available, it can be effective to have two interviewers, one to ask most of the questions and one to take most of the notes. If you are the one asking the questions, occaisionally ask the note taker if they are keeping up, or if they captured a particular point.
Diagrams and models can be great way of note taking if appropriate. Again, keep the diagram visible to the interviewee; even if they have never previously seen a particular form of model, I am often impressed at how quickly business stakeholders will pick up the technique and start using it with me. It is often claimed, for example, that you should not try to teach data modelling or state modelling to business stakeholders because they cannot possibly understand it. If you are modelling their business, and your model reflects the language that they are using, I have seen them not only understanding it, but coming up with some great insights based on an instant analysis that the model allowed them to make. I have had business stakeholders at the end of such a session telling me that the model and the act of modelling gave them fresh insights into their own business. You may find that what started off as an interview at a desk becomes a stand up affair at a white board or a flip chart. Don’t forget to photograph or otherwise capture the detail on the whiteboard.
Recording. When I worked with dealers and money brokers in the city, I often found that it was helpful to record the detail of the interview, particularly when the dealer spoke very rapidly in the language of the dealing room; by ‘language of the dealing room’, I’m talking about financial terminology, not some of the other language you hear. If you want to record, ask the interviewee if they mind.
Summarising the interview
End the interview at the agreed time unless the interviewee says that it is alright to continue. Go through your notes with the interviewee and ask them to confirm that what have written is correct. Amend any misunderstandings immediately.
Remind the interviewee that you will provide them with a write up of the interview and that you will wait for their acceptance before circulating them.
Thank them for their time and ask if it will be alright to come back to them if necessary for follow up information.
Follow up the interview
Write up your notes immediately. For this reason, you should always ty to avoid having ‘back to back’ interviews or planning for interviews at the end of the day; this is especially true if the day is Friday or there is a public holiday the next day.
As well as writing up the notes, incorporate your findings and analysis into the other work that you and your team are undertaking. Your analysis might indicate that you need to have further meetings with your interviewee or that you need to see other stakeholders to gather supporting information.