Business Analysis: Pictures versus Words

Business Analysis: Pictures versus Words?

Image expressing "Pictures versus Words". An image of a pipe and the text "This is a pipe"
Pictures versus Words: This is a pipe

Business Analysts use models which are presented as pictures. Business Analysts also need to write text. This may give rise to a debate:

“Pictures versus Words – which is better?”

(In the picture I’m making a playful reference to Rene Magritte’s famous painting “The Treachery of Images”). Unfortunately, the honest answer to this question has to be “it depends”. It depends on what:

  • You trying to achieve with your model or text?
  • The business side wants and understands?
  • IT side needs and understands?
  • You comfortable with?

Inevitably the answer is going to finish up as a compromise.

The limitations of words

Words used as a bridge between Business and Information Technology
Words alone may form a weak bridge

Words are marvellous! You are reading this blog post! Informally, most projects start off with a short statement “we want to do something”. We add detail to that statement and it becomes a list of “requirements”. That is good, but as we start to describe our “pipe”, sometimes we find that “a picture (or model) really is worth a thousand words”.

In the “Pictures versus Words” debate, the strength of words is found when they are brief and used to define the details. They are less good for explaining how things relate to one-another.

Words alone may make for a weak bridge between business and IT. And beware! Lawyers have been arguing about the precise meanings of words since time immemorial!

The power of models (or pictures)

Orthographic projection sketch of a chair
Orthographic projection sketch of a chair

“Orthographic Projection” is one standard way of arranging different views of the same object. You know very quickly that the diagram describes a type of chair.

Picture models like engineering drawings are strong when they are used to provide overview and show how things relate to one another. By using different views of the same thing we can check each one against the others and detect inconsistencies at an early stage.

Conclusion

In summary, pictures and models are useful and so is text. Use both as appropriate. Add detail as you need it, but limit the amount of detail to what you need. Choose the models you use with care so that you can use them to validate the requirements. My advice is to apply Ward Cunningham’s comment “The simplest thing that could possibly work” to documentation and requirements.

Simple ideas are the best – BA toolkit?

Today I stumbled across a blog post from a year ago where Ron Healy suggests creating a “Temporary Whiteboard” to carry about. The “whiteboard” is created by laminating a sheet of white paper! Sometimes simple ideas really are the best. You can’t get much simpler than that!

Ron suggests having parallel lines on one side which can be used for:

  • multifunction swimlane
  • activity diagram
  • sequence diagram
  • class diagram
  • hierarchical chart
  • system & subsystem diagram

This is such a good idea. As I commented on Ron’s blog – I’m a Business Analyst and I have been been using a daily plan made the same way for years and it didn’t occur to me to extend the idea.

Simple ideas - Laminated Daily Plans
Simple ideas – Laminated Daily Plans

I have two “plans” which I use which you can see in the picture. There is an A5 size one which is punched with two holes so I can have it at the front of an A4 ring binder and an A6 size one which I keep at the front of my Time Manager.

The layout of my plan is based on the forms I used to use in my Time Manager, but I like to remind myself of the “Elephant” and “Frog” tasks I am dealing with at the moment.

Once way in which I differ from Ron is that he uses dry wipe markers. On the other hand, I use a permanent marker and then wipe the plan down with alcohol at the end of the day when I am planning what to do the next day.

More simple ideas: What do you keep in your toolkit?

“Simple ideas” got me thinking about the Business Analysis or BA “toolkit” I carry around with me. For at least some of my working life I needed to use public transport, and that encourages you to carry the minimum you need.

My toolkit contains:

  • Laptop
  • Laminated plan
  • Diary
  • A4 ring binder to contain the current notes
  • Pack of Post-It notes
  • Pack of file cards
  • Foolscap or A4 wallet folder to hold loose bits together
  • A4 spiral bound notebook
  • Whiteboard Markers

What do you keep in your toolkit?