|category:||War Stories and Advice|
Analysis is a difficult job. It requires capturing the business problem, including the business entities and the business processing. It requires endless patience, good interviewing skills and excellent writing skills. Most important, it also requires the discipline to discover the whole problem before putting forth any solution.
This essay provides some background, followed by the 5-step process, then a summary of the objectives of the analysis exercise. The process has the following steps:
Most analysts have strong IT backgrounds, and immediately solve the problem. Before the user has finished describing it, the solution forms in their heads. Sadly, many line-of-business end-users have so much IT experience, they are solving the problem, also. They describe files, processing, conditions, business rules, and all the trappings of IT solutions. They also ignore their own actual problem, and instead describe a solution they think IT can build.
Frustratingly, there is a lot of second-guessing that goes on. People say things during analysis that are calibrated to create a certain kind of response. They don’t often report the whole story, but just enough of the story to get the desired response. This is often revealed when the condition that is “always true” has “a few minor exceptions, but you don’t need to worry about those, they’ll never occur.”
Warning: user manipulation in process.
There are two important subject areas for analysis: data and processing. For others, see the Zachman Framework. http://www.zifa.com . You can argue which of these is more enduring and essential. Data if often identified as essential, since business processes change, but the artifacts (the data) doesn’t evolve as rapidly. See Essay 8 , “Data First, User Interface Later” for an opinion. This could be termed functional drift. We also have to resolve the issue of two organizations using different processes around the same artifact; e.g., two different invoicing systems. This could be termed functional heterogeneity.
However, data is not immune from these problems. Databases are full of attributes where the actual purpose doesn’t match the name. This is either evolution (semantic drift) or conflict (semantic heterogeneity).
I like to call this the “Third Christmas Club Problem.” Once upon a time, there was a bank service called a Christmas club. Make deposits for 50 weeks, get your money with a big interest payment at the end of the year. It’s a terrible deal, banks don’t offer it anymore, but their systems still have places to record Christmas Club account numbers in the customer database. Interestingly, those fields have been reused for other purposes, but the database column names have not been changed. Now you find the credit card account number that is tied to a home equity loan hidden in the otherwise unused XMAS_CLUB_3 field.
We have to start somewhere, and neither data nor process is perfect. We’ll start with process.
1. Problem Description
Write a narrative of the problem, from the user’s point of view. Focus on the user’s purpose, objectives, goals. Include a high-level summary overview of the essential processing that can’t get done properly. Don’t metion solutions; be accurate but not perfectly precise. You will rework this heavily.
You are only writing a few paragraphs. You are, however, describing the business problem. See Essay 17, “Solution or Workaround?” for guidance on this. Given a problem, it is possible to define a solution. Lacking a problem to solve ... well ... the entire project can never be successful.
You can’t think of anything to say. This is writer’s block. Everyone gets it. Do two things to cure it.
Warning: Do not skip this step and move on, hoping to make up for the lack of written ideas later in the process. If are blocked now, you will be blocked later. You have to start with something written, but you will evolve it into something useful.
The Orinoco Flow
You have written 15 pages of single-spaced material, summarizing all of the powerpoint presentations, email traffic, process manuals, company policies and the sports section of the Sunday New York Times. You haven’t even begun to scratch the surface on the highly nuanced and sophisticated capabilities that would provide enduring business advantage well into the next decade. You’ve accounted for technology shifts and opportunities to create additional value above and beyond the project scope.
You have, of course, solved the problem without formally defining it. You need to throw this away and begin again to describe just the user’s experience with the system: their interactions, and how this creates value for the users.
Warning: Do not save this original material. It is a thought virus, and will infect everything you do. Indeed, you may be unable to shake this solution and actually focus on the user’s real problems. Consider recusing yourself from the project if you can’t delete it all and start again.
Edge of the World
You’ve written some stuff, but it’s too abstract to be of any use. You can’t code from it, or even design from it. It’s high level, pointless fluff. It’s incomplete, and cannot be completed because it’s so vague and purposeless.
This is actually usable stuff. There’s more process to making this valuable, and the process is iterative. This is at least grist for the mill, and can be refined.
Warning: Do not resort to prototyping at this point. All the code you write will be a thought virus, and will shape your concept of problem and solution. At some point in the future, you might resort to prototyping to drive out additional requirements or resolve design issues. Don’t do it now.
2. Nouns and Verbs
While sometimes deprecated as misleading or simplistic, I found noun and verb analysis to be a good technique for getting started on understanding the problem domain.
From your narrative description, locate nouns and verbs. Nouns should give you big hints about the actors, the business entities, attributes of the entities. Verbs will help you identify processing that the business entities are part of.
You will find that your description is often incomplete or off-target.
Warning: Don’t rewrite heavily at this time; wait for the end of the iteration before rewriting.
From the nouns and verbs concoct a business model, including the static (entity or class) and dynamic (activity and state) descriptions. This is not a logical model; it doesn’t have all of the attributes, all of the relationships, or even all of the entities. It is a conceptual model that defines the terms used in the narrative. It will evolve (eventually) into a more technical, more usable model.
Advice: Work quickly, don’t spend too much time editing, revising or extending; your job is to capture information and iterate through a number of steps.
3. Use Cases
Given the business model and the narrative description, refine the description into some kind of use cases.
A use case identifies an actor, the interactions between the actor and the system, and the business value created by that interaction.
Note that the use cases presume some kind of “system”. We haven’t defined the system, so how do we describe interactions? This is challenging at first. The secret is an idealized, hypothetical system which does the minimum to help the user’s meet their goals. Don’t over-automate a super-system that does everything automatically. Don’t worry about under-automating.
Start with the actors. Don’t name each person; classify the actors by roles. If you can’t identify the actors from what you know, you can start again at the beginning. You now know more than you did when you started. The second trip around will produce better results.
Each actor has a goal. Write it down. They’ll have to use the system to meet that goal. What will the actor provide? What will the system provide? What decisions do the actors make? What actions do they take based on information from the system?
This will lead you to one or more sequences of interactions for each actor. Each sequence is discrete when it has a discrete goal; a purpose; and ending point. Name the sequences (they are “use cases”); write down the interactions.
When writing the interactions, use words from the business entity diagram. Use consistent verbs. When in doubt, remember that people interact with computers for two fundamental purposes:
Algorithms, processes, procedures and the like aren’t often interactive. Go too far down the “detailed procedures” road and you leave the person out of the picture. Be sure you can answer the basic questions: Why is the person doing this? What is their goal?
Warning: Do not over document the system side of the processing; that is part of the solution. We’re iterating, remember. The first thing you write down is not the final answer, it’s only a draft.
4. Solution Summary
Summarize the use cases using a well-defined set of nouns and verbs. You are trying to clarify (and sometimes simplify) the use cases to name the real business entities – the real nouns in the problem domain. When writing the summary, you may realize that some use cases need rewriting. In the process of use case writing, you may have some summary material that eliminates some tiresome details. You should bounce back and forth between summary writing and use case editing.
Your solution should match your problem. Indeed, this is the final check for proper scope: does the summary describe a solution to the problem?
Now that you have some entities and some interactions, you know much, much more about the system. You have to do two things. First, throw away all your notes to date. Second, go back to the beginning of the process and write a new narrative description. This will be better (more complete, more accurate, more focused and more useful) than your first draft. Watch the shoals carefully, and don’t create the solution.
You may have to iterate more than once to really capture the essence of the user’s problem. Actors will come and go from the model. Business entities will come and go. The focus will narrow. The implementation details (mainframe vs. server, web vs. batch, Java vs. COBOL, DB2 vs. Oracle, Army vs. Navy) will drop away.
The objective isn’t the problem definition. However, this is so hard that people get stalled trying to write this. See Essay 17, “Solution or Workaround” for guidance. They often jump past problem to solution, omitting any clear definition of what the problem really is. The real objective is the business entity model and the use cases. The solution summary simply frames the use cases up for easy digestion.
The business entity model has nouns from the use cases. The use case nouns are clarified and defined in the business entity model. When someone reads a use case, they should be able to follow along on the business entity diagram.