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Is social media useful for requirements elicitation?

Answer: it has to be. Requirements elicitation is a communications-intensive process, so by definition, any tools which improve communications will improve your requirements. The only question is how best to utilize social media. In this post I will not attempt to recommend specific solutions, but instead try to get our minds around the advantages of social media and what those advantages mean for requirements elicitation.

First, let’s define social media. Wikipedia (and where else would we go for a definition of social media other than a socially-created encyclopedia?) defines it as “media for social interaction, using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques. Social media use web-based technologies to transform and broadcast media monologues into social media dialogues.” I would like to note that this does not limit social collaboration to the publicly available web sites Facebook and Twitter.

Internal company networks can also host social media tools for the use of their employees. Also, all social media tools do not need to be public broadcasts to anyone who’ll listen. For example, Facebook restricts most user content to one’s small (or large) circle of friends.  

In this article by Anthony Bradley, he outlines 6 core principles that underlie the value of social-media solutions.

  1. Participation
  2. Collective
  3. Transparency
  4. Independence
  5. Persistence
  6. Emergence

Let’s walk through each one and think about how it applies to requirements elicitation.

Participation

Clearly, participation is crucial to requirements gathering. You get input from the right people in order to have accurate requirements. A lone person’s requirements are of no use unless the product will only be used by that lone person. Whether there are a few user representatives, or millions of users throughout the world, social media can help you hear what they have to say.

Collective

Social media collects and accumulates content, be it files, photos, videos, or anything else. Requirements fit in perfectly because they are a collection themselves. With social media, you can not only collect the requirements, but all the discussions and disagreements around them.

Transparency

Most social media communication is not private, it is broadcast to the community. Users see each other’s contributions and can add to them, or dispute them. This is also a necessity for requirements gathering. Any requirements should be publicized, critiqued, and adjusted based on the feedback of the community. Social media tools specialize in enabling this type of interaction.

Independence

Anyone can contribute at any time and no coordination between collaborators is needed. This is also great for requirements elicitation, because there is no way to know when inspiration will strike. Requirements reviews are not perfect sessions where 100% of the issues come out. A week after the session one of your key users may think of something while driving to work that could significantly alter your requirements. That person needs the ability to communicate as quickly as possible, whether there is a formal meeting scheduled or not.

Persistence

Content in social media persists and doesn’t disappear. This is a boon for requirements gathering, because so many times the rationale for decisions is forgotten. It would be so valuable to not only see all the decisions themselves captured forever, but also all the discussions that went into making them.

Emergence

In my opinion, this is the true power of social media. Ideas emerge that otherwise would have remained hidden. If a social media tool encourages just a single team member to say something that wouldn’t have been said without the tool, the tool has great value. That opinion could spur a discussion that changes the entire project direction. If social media can cause these ideas to emerge sooner, it has tremendous value for requirements elicitation.   How much better would our products be if all the relevant problems with the requirements came out during the elicitation process rather than in beta testing?

All these factors point to the great usefulness of social media in requirements gathering. In upcoming posts, I will write about specific tools and how to integrate them into your requirements process.

 

4 Responses to Is social media useful for requirements elicitation?

  1. David January 12, 2012 at 8:12 am #

    Hi Jeremy,

    Your article makes an interesting read, and I can see logic behind some of the points, specifically the ‘Independence’ section.

    Could I ask what tools you believe are suitable for this? As I would like to look into this further.

    Many thanks.

    Dave

  2. Jeremy Gorr January 12, 2012 at 11:31 am #

    Thanks for your question, David. My article describes the ideal social functionality, and because social networks are still in their infancy, no existing tool contains all the required collaboration functionality. Many times, I end up resorting to reliable collaboration tools like Google Docs for real-time, never-ending feedback from all Subject Matter Experts and user representatives.

    That being said, context is everything when it comes to new approaches to elicitation. For recommended tools, a lot depends on your situation (I may need more context to be truly helpful). For example, if you’re a BA in a mid-sized construction materials firm where no one in management spends uses their computer for anything but email, and where few users are familiar with any social networks, I might recommend plain old email. If you’re an IT product manager in a San Francisco area financial services firm, where management competes among themselves for who has the newest gadget…I might recommend a more complex social tool. If you’re in a large enterprise with enterprise-wide social tools like Jive or Chatter, those might be a good place to start. If you can tell me more, I could be more helpful.

    Jeremy

  3. Ilias August 10, 2012 at 6:06 am #

    Hi Jeremy,

    I like the your post above. You were addressing what I’m thinking about all this while. But my idea is to extend the use of enterprise social networking or ESN (e.g. Jive,Yammer) in requirements elicitation. Lets take an example of the implementation in a software vendor, as the software is meant for internal communication, software development team can use for particular project by creating a new page. As requirements elicitation need communication with all stakeholders, we can invite our customer into our project page as external member.

    However, my problem is, are the facilities of this ESN will replace requirements management software which have social interaction facilities as well and up to what level that ESN suffice requirements elicitation process according to the standard software development process?

    What say you?

  4. Jeremy Gorr August 10, 2012 at 1:32 pm #

    Ilias,

    I think you’re definitely on the right track in thinking about how to use these social tools in your requirements gathering. As you mention, right now there are limits on the tools we use, because they are all in the process of evolving to better handle social input. I would love to say that there is a tool that handles requirements management as well as exploiting social aspects to their fullest, but that doesn’t exist yet.

    Therefore, you are going to have to use your best judgment on which combination of tools to use. I don’t think you’ll find a requirements management tool that is social enough for your needs, and I certainly don’t think you’ll find an ESN that does a good job at requirements management. If you do, you can reduce to using a single tool.

    However, I would probably use an ESN during the requirements elicitation phase, and as I gather requirements transfer them into a requirements management tool for the software development process. I know it is not ideal having to switch data between two tools, but in the current state of the technology we are pretty much stuck with it.

    If you do find a single tool that will adequately do both functions, I’d love to hear about it!

    Jeremy

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