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Kipling, not cakes but 5 Ws and H

Posted by Tony Simms on 6/04/2022
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Tips for Making the Most of 5 Ws & H

Do you know the poem that starts?

“I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.”

These six fundamental questions can serve you very well when creating user stories. They can be particularly useful if used in a group setting. Even more so if the group has wide representation across the various stakeholder groups. In fact, having input from a mixed group is particularly important if you are looking to get comprehensive user stories that everyone can agree to.


When I run this exercise, I like to have a large display sheet (generally, I use brown paper roll and stick it two layers deep across a wall), a load of marker pens and plenty of packs of sticky notes. PRO TIP! Do not use the cheap sticky notes you get from Poundshop and the like, unless you want to spend half the meeting picking them back up off the floor! 

Typically, to cover a topic of any size the exercise would be run over a 2 to 3 hours session, I will introduce the topic. For example, it might be, “Goods In Inventory” and explain that the object of the exercise is to give the project team a good understanding of the basic questions associated with the topic.

I explain that the process will be to write the questions under each of the six sections marked on the chart (Who, What, Where, When, How, Why). I start with the sixth question “Who” and ask the participants to write as many “who questions as possible”. The results might be, “Who receives the goods?”, “Who needs to know about the shipment?” “Who operates the Cubiscan?” etc. 

The trick is to keep the “Who” questions coming. Encourage people to fill in the sticky notes and not to think too much about the factual answer, that will come later. As the attendees are writing down their thoughts and answers these questions, I tend to walk round collect a bunch of questions as they continue to work away. I stick them on the chart under the heading “Who”, calling them out as I do. This can prompt the participants to think of related questions. 

Once, all the questions are stuck on the chart, I spend some time discussing them with the group and trying to cluster them into logical groups. For example, we might end up with three groups.

  • External
  • Warehouse
  • Back Office

Then, I would move on to the next section, “What” again asking the group to write down as many “what” questions as possible. For example, “What happens if product has no SKU?” or “What do you do about lack of storage space?”.

As before, I collect the answers as they are being written down and shout them out as I stick them up. We again discuss them, group them and then continue through the remaining questions in the same way.

For any of the sections, if the teams are stuck for questions, I will suggest a few examples and that seems to get things flowing again. PRO TIP! Start with a couple of examples and have a backup selection of suggestions in case things slow down. I try to keep this moving swiftly, no more than 15 minutes per heading. (Some headings may not fill the time and other may open a floodgate of post-its, so be flexible.)

Often during the section recap, there will be a question that prompts discussion. Unless the discussion can quickly be bought to a conclusion, I will step in and suggest that we record the item for later discussion. Have a “car park” sheet on another wall to capture the topics.

Now, having got a list of ‘What’, ‘Why’, ‘When’, ‘How’, ‘Where’ and ‘Who’, I can use that information for several test related purposes. For example: 

  • They provide a rich seam of material from which to construct user stories or more traditional requirements.
  • I can use the information to construct business process or data flow diagrams.
  • The “Who” information can be used to create stakeholder maps and to conduct stakeholder analysis.
  • The information can be used for project management to create introduction sections for anyone joining the project to help them get up to speed faster.

Depending on the project dynamics, it can be helpful to run this exercise to address a particular issue. An example of this, where there is limited product or business knowledge within the team, inviting subject matter experts to participate can be an effective way to instigate some knowledge transfer.

Where a third party is introducing a new system to replace an existing system and having members who know both systems; this exercise can be used to identify gaps between the systems. This leads to a discussion as to how to address these.

Where there is a number of conflicting requirements or opinions bringing the dissenters together within the context of a larger group. Asking the six questions can help lead to a wider understanding, compromise and consensus.

I have found these six serving men to be very effective. I recommend that you give it a go! If you do, then do please get in touch with nFocus and let us know how it went!

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Topics: Software Testing, Test Tools, Test Requirements

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