Business analysis and X-Ray listening

The business tells you what it thinks it wants, but are they explaining their real requirements? Here is how to get under the customers skin and really find out what they need from new systems.


Have you ever had a sense of having missed a customer’s "real requirement"? The solution does just what the requirements said it should do - but the customer’s unease becomes increasingly obvious as the system goes live.

There’s a good chance this has happened to you at some time. Research has shown that up to 83 per cent of IT projects fail, with insufficient user involvement and inadequate requirements identified as the prime causes.

Analysts have evolved all kinds of ways to document requirements:

  1. plain text statements, tables and spreadsheets, pictures and graphs
  2. interface design and prototyping
  3. modelling of information (concepts, data, classes), activities (process, capability), use cases and more
  4. tools for modelling
  5. tools to manage requirement catalogues
  6. workshops, interviews and questionnaires.

All of the above – good techniques when used well – are more-or-less fine in context, and of course we benefit from collecting, representing and sharing requirements using a common (to us!) notation. Sadly, we may completely bypass the ‘real requirement’ until the solution fails to deliver, and the ‘blame and recrimination’ phase begins.

Business Analysis Conference 2009

This article is part of a series of contributions by speakers at the Business Analysis Conference 2009 in London on 28-30 September

The truth is that all the well-known tools and techniques are driven by the analyst’s agenda: “I need to know more about XYZ”. What’s missing is the space for the customer to explore their own unstated needs, which are perhaps only dimly recognised.

Psychologists increasingly recognise the role of the subconscious mind in driving customer behaviour: most of stakeholders’ decision-making actually happens outside their conscious awareness and without their conscious control.

How can we, as analysts, become aware of what is going on for our customers at an unconscious level, and harness this knowledge for business benefit? At the Business Analysis Conference, we will be suggesting a way forward: an interviewing and workshop technique called Clean Language or, more expressively, X-Ray Listening. It’s specifically designed to work alongside existing analysis techniques, and to get under the skin of customer requirements: to find out what they really want.

We really wanted to do something about the waste of time, money and energy caused by these misunderstandings. The truth is that often users don’t know what they want from a new system, or don’t know how to say what they want, and analysts don’t know how to extract that information from them.

When we came across Clean Language I immediately realised it had huge potential to make a difference, so we are very excited to be able to share it with the conference delegates.”

Judy Rees is co-author of Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds. She is a former senior manager in a new media company, where she championed a number of large IT projects.

Tony Bidgood is an independent consultant and business architect specialising in process improvement, SOA and service-based business.

To find out more about X-Ray Listening go to

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