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Define Requirements Effectively

Three steps to lead an effective
requirements discovery session

Last year, I took a trip to a liberal arts college on the West Coast to kick off a website redesign. My job was to host a session with the marketing director, web manager, director of admissions, provost, and other key stakeholders to uncover all of the underlying motivations and requirements for the website redesign.

Any web strategist worth their salt knows that stakeholder face-to-face time is vital to gather accurate requirements during the discovery phase of a web project. That being said, it is by no means the only step in the discovery process. Research, testing, prototyping, concepting, and supplement stakeholder interviews must all be tied together to holistically develop an accurate, well-rounded web strategy. Now that I’ve effectively bored you with my disclaimer – let me continue with my story.

A week before my trip out west, I was assigned the task of leading the session. Great, right? Talk about a less-than-ideal timeline. I could feel the panic creeping up my chest – how could I hit this out of the park? I knew that I had to lean on my established process to guide me. Here’s what I did:


#1. Embrace your inner James Bond – it’s all about gathering intelligence.

As soon as I found out about the project I dug up the contact information for my primary contact at the college. I got so far up his grill before the session I swear he stopped answering my calls. Despite how annoying I may have been, this allowed me to genuinely get to know every single person in the room – their roles, motivations, quirks, histories, favorite color, and more.

I wasn’t doing all of this to catch up on the gossip. No, armed with this intelligence, I walked into the room with a deep understanding of all of the human dynamics at play. During the session, I was able to use this leverage to understand who would be the consistent troublemaker, who I could rely on to keep momentum moving if the project had stalled, who would bring a “chip on the shoulder” to the conversation, and who would be the one to make the final call on important decisions.

 Know Your Stakeholders


#2. Tip your hand

After doing the work to get a deeper understanding of all the key players and their motivations, I was able to shape up a list of about 10-15 provoking questions for each of the folks that would be attending the session (this worked out to be about 45 questions in total). I shaped each question precisely for the person to whom/group to which it would be directed. Here’s a sample of three of the questions I used:

    • What is the brand’s greatest strength? Weakness?
    • How do you intend to shape your calls to action to achieve your business objectives?
    • How will we know if this project was a success?

Here’s the clincher - once I nailed down the questions: Ishared them with each stakeholder and required them to bring their answers to the session.

Preparing them to think through the questions beforehand let me get to the heart of the real project requirements much quicker during the session – doubling the effectiveness and meaningfulness of my face-to-face time.

 Question Everyone


#3. Be an inquisitive sponge

After getting to know each key player and prepping them with customized questions, I was ready to kick off my session.

My format flowed like this:

    • Re-ask the same questions I’d already shared (see step #2)
    • Listen, listen, listen, and listen some more

Each of my interviewees had prepared their answers, so I was truly able to actively listen as they walked through their answers. Every once and a while I had to recalibrate our conversation to make sure we stayed on topic, and I also fielded any additional questions and dove deeper into various topics when I felt like it would be fruitful for further defining the project requirements.

 Inquisitive Sponge


Following these three steps gave me
accurate, complete requirements

The session was a success! I’d already done most of the leg-work before the session, so at game-time there were very few surprises, both for me or the stakeholders. This not only allowed me to gather all of the necessary requirements for the project, but also set the tone for the rest of the project, building the client’s confidence in my team’s ability to do our job well.

So remember: find out as much as possible about each interviewee before the session, give away your questions to your interviewees before the session, and use your time during the session to soak up as much information as possible. Following these steps will not only make your requirements discovery session flow smoothly, but more importantly will help you to get all of the information you need to form robust, accurate requirements.


Like what Joe has to say? Check out his blog on User Experience Design here!