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Web-based Information systems


Section 3 - Requirements analysis in the WIS Development Life Cycle

The goal of requirements analysis is to gather the information necessary to develop a system that will fulfill the business objectives of an organization. In the case of a Web-based information system, requirements analysis includes defining the objectives of the site; gathering information about its possible users and their needs, its content and the way in which it will be presented; and generating specifications and recommendations necessary for designing the system.21 Four elements are central to the analysis of a Web-based information system: problem domain, users, content, and presentation.

Problem domain - Takahasi and Liang22, and Ginige23 emphasize the importance of researching and understanding the problem domain of a Web-based information system at the beginning of the analysis phase. The problem domain refers to the "overall environment within which the application will exist."24 A clear definition and understanding of the problem domain, and how it relates to the organization's and its users' goals, is a prerequisite for achieving accurate system requirements. Although the definition of a problem domain is also realized in traditional information system development, the domain and stakeholders considered in the case of a WIS are broader in scope.

Users - There is a close correlation between users' requirements and business objectives. Indeed, the goal of an organization is to provide products and/or services that customers are willing to purchase and/or use. Although users of a WIS have various attributes that increase the challenges of requirement elicitation and analysis, requirements analysis is still an essential phase of the development process. As Norton stresses in his article Applying Cross-Functional Evolutionary Methodologies to Web Development: "[u]ser participation in Web development - although more difficult to achieve than in traditional development - is just as essential to success."25

In general, users of a Web-based information system are very diverse with regard to their numbers, location, and attributes. WIS users tend to be more numerous than users of a traditional information system, which usually focuses on the needs of employees of a single organization or a single unit within an organization. The number of WIS users also tends to grow with time. This has a direct impact on the structure of the system, which needs to grow and evolve in conjunction with the growth of its user base. WIS users are located in different geographical areas, and, in some cases, in different countries. As a result traditional requirements analysis methods are impractical in this context and must be modified to take these new types of users into consideration.26 WIS users also have different interests and goals when using the system, and possess various browsing habits and levels of technical expertise that need to be taken into account during the analysis process in order to provide them with a system that will address their needs and interests.

Although it is difficult to gather information about WIS users, there are now more resources that enable such identification. Developers can refer to information gathered by survey organizations, such as the Graphic, Visualization, & Usability Center's (GVU), Cyberdialogue, NetCraft, or the NPD Group; academic research papers; or even data gathered by the organization from an existing Web-based information system or Web site. Furthermore, today's users have developed increasing levels of expertise in using the Web and can be more helpful during the analysis process.

Deshpande and Hansen adequately expressed the paradox of a WIS user's requirements analysis: "Web-based applications frequently deal with completely unidentified users, and their expectations (requirements) and behavior patterns decide whether the application is successful."27 Identifying complete users' requirements is extremely critical since, when it is incomplete, it has been identified as the top reason for information systems project failure.28 Gathering accurate users' requirements is also important since it serves as the foundation for the next two elements of WIS analysis, content and presentation, discussed below.

Content - Content refers to the pieces of information contained in the Web application or system. Content analysis is important for several reasons: the dynamic and interactive characteristics of a WIS, how the information is structured within the system, and the types of data that will best address the users' and organization's needs. As Garzotto et al noted in their article on hypermedia analysis and design, "Content analysis, however, requires deep knowledge of the users profiles and tasks."29 Identifying what types of users are likely to visit the site and the tasks that they wish to accomplish with the application serves as a guide to the content analysis in the system development process.

Once the user profiles have been determined, content analysis identifies what types of content are most appropriate for the tasks the users want to accomplish. In the context of Web-based information systems, we can differentiate between static and dynamic content. Static content refers to html pages, images, or graphics. Dynamic content includes video clips, sound tracks and animations, as well as information dynamically generated at run time. There are a variety of technologies - such as cookies, applets, servlets, CGI programs, or computation-oriented applications - that can be utilized to provide a WIS with requisite dynamic features and interactivity. And although specific technologies are selected during the design phase of the system, it is still necessary for the WIS analyst to recommend what types of features should be used with a particular system based on the user profiles. Interactivity is another important dimension of content analysis, since it may be necessary for the analyst to recommend a certain level or type of interactivity that best corresponds to the intended users. Recommendations on the types of elements and features to include in a distance-learning site may be an example.

Another complexity of Web-based information systems resides in the fact that the system developers "have to make assumptions about the kind of networks their anonymous users access."30 The technology and the types of networks connecting the users to the WIS impact the sorts of content that should be included in a WIS. Analysts, therefore, have to make content recommendations based on the following criteria: the users' profiles, the tasks that need to be accomplished by the users, the Web technologies currently available for these tasks, and their assumptions on the kinds of technologies and networks to which their customers will most likely have access - for example users' CPU time and network bandwidth - while remaining within the limits of the project's resources constraints.

Presentation - As mentioned previously, users of Web-based information systems are acquiring more experience and, by the same token, are becoming more demanding as far as content presentation is concerned. Thus, the visual appearance of a Web-based information system is extremely important. Users have now a plethora of sites they can visit and their expectations grow with the number of sites available for comparison-shopping.31 Therefore, offering an attractive and easy-to-use interface can make the difference between a system's success or failure. According to Forrester Research, "poor web design will result in a loss of 50 per cent of potential sales due to users being unable to find what they want, and a loss of 40 per cent of potential repeat visits due to an initial negative experience."32 Although this is partly due to content analysis and how the site is structured, it is through presentation analysis that WIS analysts can identify recommendations about the visual appearance that an interface should have in order to be most attractive to specific users. The level of technical expertise of an organization's targeted users may be one example of how it can influence the visual appearance of an interface. For example, this may prompt the analyst to recommend easy-to-use and simple navigation features because of the intended users' low level of familiarity with the Web. Other elements that analysts need to take into consideration are related to the types of browsers, screen size and resolution that will be used by the system's users. It may be necessary for analysts to recommend certain features or interfaces in order to satisfy the profile of a particular system's users.

Conclusion - Problem domain, users, content, and visual appearance are main considerations in the requirements analysis of a Web-based information system. These elements correspond to different disciplinary emphases that are not encountered in the development of a traditional information system. Developing a WIS thus means putting together a team of professionals from a wider range of disciplines than in a traditional information system's development team. Hansen et al propose a three dimensional skills space, in which the skills of the team members can be considered within a Management, Technical, and Human Interaction dimension. "The management vector is associated with the skills needed to coordinate, regulate and integrate the Web system with the 'organization' and existing information systems. The technical vector includes computing, networking and internet communications skills. The human interaction vector is associated with graphics design, layout, 'human communications' and presentation skills."33 Developing a Web-based information system, thus, requires new skills and new approaches to systems development.

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