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Ambiguity and tacit knowledge in requirements elicitation interviews

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Abstract

Interviews are the most common and effective means to perform requirements elicitation and support knowledge transfer between a customer and a requirements analyst. Ambiguity in communication is often perceived as a major obstacle for knowledge transfer, which could lead to unclear and incomplete requirements documents. In this paper, we analyze the role of ambiguity in requirements elicitation interviews, when requirements are still tacit ideas to be surfaced. To study the phenomenon, we performed a set of 34 customer–analyst interviews. This experience was used as a baseline to define a framework to categorize ambiguity. The framework presents the notion of ambiguity as a class of four main sub-phenomena, namely unclarity, multiple understanding, incorrect disambiguation and correct disambiguation. We present examples of ambiguities from our interviews to illustrate the different categories, and we highlight the pragmatic components that determine the occurrence of ambiguity. Along the study, we discovered a peculiar relation between ambiguity and tacit knowledge in interviews. Tacit knowledge is the knowledge that a customer has but does not pass to the analyst for any reason. From our experience, we have discovered that, rather than an obstacle, the occurrence of an ambiguity is often a resource for discovering tacit knowledge. Again, examples are presented from our interviews to support this vision.

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Notes

  1. Three professionals in different subfields, namely Bio-medical Devices, Heath-care Management and General Medicine.

  2. For example, one of the goals of the General Medicine domain is to provide treatments for the patients. A system whose goal is to support a physician in the diagnosis of a disease (as, e.g., in Example 3.3) only contributes to the domain goal of treating the patients. Satisfying this domain goal requires other sub-goals to be addressed (e.g., selecting medications), which are outside the scope of the system.

  3. Gervasi et al. [28] have i refer to the whole interview. Here, i is associated with the specific piece of the interview (i.e., the speech fragment) in which k is articulated.

  4. The speech fragment in this example could be seen as inconsistent with the commonsense knowledge of the analyst. However, deciding whether something is commonsense knowledge or domain knowledge is arguable. For this reason, we adopted the convention that any ambiguity that is driven by different views of the domain shall be apportioned to the domain knowledge dimension.

  5. We do not show the different sub-categories, to give evidence of the dominance of the domain component with respect to the other types of unclarity.

  6. This latter case is only speculative, since we were not able to see these cases in practice.

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank Daniel M. Berry for his precious recommendations and all the anonymous reviewers who helped improving this paper. This work was partially supported by the LearnPAd FP7-ICT-2013.8.2 European Project.

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Ferrari, A., Spoletini, P. & Gnesi, S. Ambiguity and tacit knowledge in requirements elicitation interviews. Requirements Eng 21, 333–355 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00766-016-0249-3

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