What's the acceptable involvement of a QA analyst in the requirements process?

First published 10/04/2014

A question from Amanda in Louiville, Kentucky USA.

“What's the acceptable involvement of a QA analyst in the requirements process?  Is it acceptable to communicate with users or should the QA analyst work exclusively with the business team when interpreting requirements and filling gaps?

As testers, we sometimes must make dreaded assumptions and it often helps to have an awareness of the users' experiences and expectations.”

“Interesting question, Amanda. Firstly, I want to park the ‘acceptable’ part of your question. I’ll come back to it, I promise.

Let me suggest firstly, that collaboration and consensus between users, BAs, developers and testers is helpful in almost all circumstances. You may have heard the phrase ‘three amigos’ in Agile circles to describe user/BA, developer and tester collaboration. What Agile has reminded us of most strongly is that regular and rapid feedback is what keeps momentum going in knowledge based (i.e. software development) projects.

In collaborative teams, knowledge gets shared fast and ‘dreaded assumptions’ don’t turn into disasters. I can think of no circumstance where a tester should not be allowed to ask awkward questions relating to requirements like ‘did you really mean this...?’, ‘what happens if...?’, ‘Can you explain this anomaly?’, ‘If I assume this..., am I correct?’. Mostly, these questions can be prefaced with another.

‘Can I ask a stupid question?’ reduces the chance of a defensive or negative response. You get the idea, I’m sure.

Where there is uncertainty, people make assumptions unless they are encouraged to ask questions and challenge other people’s thinking – to get to the bottom of problems. If you (as a tester) make assumptions, it’s likely that your developers will too (and different assumptions, for sure). Needless to say the users, all along, may be assuming something entirely different. Assume makes an ass of u and me (heard that one before?)

So – collaboration is a very positive thing.

Now, you ask whether it is ‘acceptable’ for testers to talk direct to users. When might it not be “acceptable”? I can think of two situations at least. (There are probably more).

One would be where you as a tester work for a system supplier and the users and BAs work for your customer. Potentially, because of commercial/contractual constraints you might not be allowed to communicate directly. There is a risk (on both sides) that a private agreement between people who work for the supplier and customer might undermine or conflict with an existing contract. The formal channels of communication must be followed. It is a less efficient way of working, but sometimes you just have to abide with commercial rules. Large, government or high-integrity projects often follow this pattern.

Another situation may be this. The BA perceives their role to be the interface between end users and a software project team. No one is allowed to talk direct to users because private agreements can cause mayhem if only some parties are aware of them. The BA is accountable to users and the rest of the project team for changes to requirements. There may be good reasons for this, but if you all work for the same organisation what doesn’t help is a ‘middle man’ who adds no value but distorts (unknowingly, accidentally or deliberately) the question from a tester and the response from a user.

Now, a good (IMHO) BA would see it as perfectly natural to allow testers (and other project participants) to ask questions of users directly, but it is also reasonable for them to be present, to assess consequences, to facilitate discussion, to capture changed requirements and disseminate them. That’s pretty much their job. A tester asking awkward questions is teasing out value and reducing uncertainty – a good thing. Who would argue with that?

But some BAs feel they ‘own’ the relationship with users. They get terribly precious about it and feel threatened and get defensive if other people intervene. In this case, the ‘not acceptable’ situation arises. I have to say, this situation reflects a rather dysfunctional relationship, not a good one. It isn’t helpful, puts barriers in the way of collaboration, introduces noise and error into the flow of information, causes delays and causes uncertainty. All together a very bad thing!

Having said all that, with this rather long reply, I’ve overran some quota or other, I’m sure. The questions I would ask, ‘unacceptable to whom?’ and ‘why?’ Are BAs defending a sensible arrangement or are they being a pain in the assumption?”

Tags: #FAQ #BusinessAnalysis

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