This is the second post in a series about the importance of gathering requirements when building web sites. This article discusses the technique of observation.
What is observation? In this context, it is when an analyst watches their client performing their daily tasks and asks questions about what they are doing and why.
The advantage of observation is that it uncovers what the customer actually does rather than what they say they do. This becomes particularly useful for capturing unconscious requirements. For example, we observed the data analysis and administration tasks that one of our clients performed whilst using one of our bespoke development solutions. Some manual calculations were regularly repeated and it became apparent an automated report would provide efficiency savings over and above adding new features that had been requested.
The disadvantage of using the observation technique is that it can be difficult to avoid influencing the process being observed. We implement tools such as Intellitracker and Web Trends on our web sites to overcome this. These tools observe user behaviour in the background and produce useful statistics, reports and heat maps. This information is passed on to our clients for them to make informed decisions about the structure of their sites.
Observation can also be an important technique for ensuring the usability of a web site. Janice Redish and Mary Frances Theofanos observed how visually impaired users browse the web and concluded that accessibility is not the same as usability. Complying with standards and guidelines for accessibility does not guarantee that screen readers let the visually impaired use a site effectively. One fascinating observation they made was that such users scan pages with their ears in much the same way as sighted users use their eyes, checking only the first few words of a link or a line of text before moving on to the next section. Interestingly this concurs with good practice for accessible sites, which suggests that alternative text content for images should be no longer than two or three words. One of our partners (Magus) provides tools for automating quality checks on web sites. These include checking rules such as the length of alternative text content, which are put to good use by our clients.
The next post in this series will discuss brainstorming as a technique for requirements gathering.
Posted by David Hall