Use design thinking for requirements gathering in e-commerce

Nowadays, more and more companies tend to engage with their customers on increasingly digital terms, especially for e-commerce business. According to a report published by the U.S. Department of Commerce, US e-commerce sales jumps 37.1% in the third quarter of 2020 compared to the same quarter a year ago. We could extrapolate that the COVID-19 even accelerate the upgrading of the e-commerce industry. More business transactions means more digital data generated. There is a lot more value to unlock by using digital data to understand the customer journey on websites.

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From the fall quarter of 2020, our UC Davis M.S. Business in Analytics practicum team started working closely with the world’s largest self-storage operator Public Storage to understand customer journey on Public Storage’s e-commerce website. Our high-level goal is to create a a UX-friendly and enterprise-scale visual analytics dashboard to help the marketing team understand and improve customer journey with web analytics.

Now we have completed the Requirements Gathering after two rounds user interviews with the VP of marketing, several working sessions with the analytics team to clarify architectural details, and a final presentation of our executive storyboard to the stakeholders at Public Storage. We spent nearly two months on the requirements gathering iterations, and we realized that being the initial phase of our practicum, requirements gathering is super critical to the success of our final product.

Requirements Gathering can be the first step of many business analytics project and it is extremely vital for getting the right problem scope and defining success metrics. We will run into a high risk if we don’t adequately and clearly understand our customers’ needs before planning our deliverables. I would like to share with you an effective tool to navigate requirements gathering from my own experience — design thinking. I will introduce it mainly based on the e-commerce domain, but it can be extended to other business areas as well.

Design thinking is a set of cross-functional analytic tools and methods. With design thinking, we will observe our target customers from a human-centered perspective to gain insights, and finally, to design products or services that create emotional attachments to the customers. It consists of five steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

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To empathize, we need to wear our customer’s shoes by observing, engaging, and immersing, which should not be mixed up with “sympathize”. Because the main user (or the “customer”) of our dashboard is the VP of marketing at Public Storage, we should imagine ourselves as the marketing lead to brainstorm user interview questions for him. For example, asking about the key performance indicators that he tracks daily, the pain points or inconvenience he currently faces in analytics should be proper questions, but not the technical details about how they usually carry out A/B testing on the website.

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In e-commerce web analytics, it may give you inspiration by first taking a look at the e-commerce conversion funnel (it can be different from traditional marketing funnels since most of the steps of an e-commerce conversion funnel are occurring on the website) to identify areas that require in-depth exploration for business decisions.

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And the key points that should be kept in mind for defining customer mind maps are:

1) A clearly defined customer (for example, in our case is the VP of marketing)

2) Customer’s potential needs in specific areas (what does he want to improve in what areas)

3) Why the customer have those needs and why those needs currently can’t be satisfied (reasons behind the needs and current obstacles)


First I would recommend to quickly write down any user interview question that flashes across your mind, no matter how crazy it can be. It can be a good idea to draw a customer mind map for your interview questions. Here is a customer mind map created by our practicum team for our first user interview. General questions in the following mind map are largely scalable for other analytics projects.

User interview mind map to understand user
User interview mind map to understand problem


Then it’s time to put down your requirement gathering questions in a more organized format. And we could use the KANO method to prioritize the most valuable questions with an order in “must-haves”, “expected”, “attractive”, and “indifferent”. We can always revisit our prototype and refine it.


Remember that requirements gathering is an iterative process. Our group members took notes for our first user interview, then we compared and discussed our notes to help us track key messages. We also had a meeting with our mentor in Public Storage to synthesize our information gathered from the interview. The VP of marketing and our mentor provided feedbacks for our first user interview and came up with suggestions for our next interview, which can be extremely helpful for us to improve in asking good questions.

Last but not least, after information is gathered from user interviews, it would be great to create a storyboard to settle down our problem scope and gain customer’s approval before moving forward. We can always come back to the prototype step to hone our storyboard. A typical storyboard for data analytics project consists of six elements:

  1. Problem statement (dependent variable)
  2. Drivers of problem (independent variable)
  3. Explore and Build(initial data analysis, technical architecture)
  4. Acceptance criteria (product or service attributes that address stakeholders’ needs)
  5. Potential impact (project justification)
  6. Next steps (MVP versus production)

Equipped with the design thinking in mind, I believe you will have a clearer direction to gather requirements from customers in a more structured and effective way.



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