Thursday, August 29, 2013

Common & Practical Problems of Requirements Elicitation

Requirement elicitation is an important and challenging phase of any software project. This holds good for both product and project development activities, but the approach, techniques might vary. A well specified requirement has been found to considerably improve success rates of projects. Though various methods and techniques have evolved over the last couple of decades to better produce a good requirements specification, many struggle to get it done well.

This could be mainly because that requirement elicitation is just not science, it is an art too. It is more an art because it is highly human intensive and much depends on the skills of the people involved in the process. More so, as which method or technique to use and the way the document is structured and written depends on the abilities of the person driving this activity. Based on my experience in the be-spoken project development and product development activities, I have listed down some of the most common and practical problems with this activity as below:

1. Preconceived Notions

The requirements of every customer even in the same business domain, would be different. For example, requirement of a bank X would not be the same as that of bank Y. Each enterprise would have different business processes to differentiate their abilities or value deliveries from their competitors. The teams involved in requirement elicitation shall start with a clean slate for every project and thus should not try to bias the elicitation work with their previous project experience in mind. Ignoring this principle would result in misaligned requirement specification and thus ending up delivering a deficient product. As this is a human intensive process, it is quite common for the customer representatives too to easily miss out on such things.

This is quite a common problem with the product companies. Irrespective of whether the client contracts for the product with customization or a project, the vendors would prefer to reuse their existing code assets. As such, the business analysts engaged in the requirement elicitation tend to scope the customer requirements in such a way that it fits within the existing product architecture and related constraints. Even in case of a product based contract, the requirement elicitation or the gap study shall focus shall be unbiased and then it is the Solution Architects who will come in to come up with solutions to bridge the gaps. In the process, the customer will have the option to decide to dilute his requirement in favor of an existing work around.

The business analysts shall master the art of unlearning and relearning to handle this area well.

2. The Design Mix-up

The next common problem is to mix up the requirement elicitation with the solution design. This happens on both the sides i.e, the vendors and the customers. The business analysts from the vendor side often would start visualizing the solution design with a specific use case and would start suggesting deviations or work around to the use case. Similarly on the customer front, the users may start talking on the system perspective. For example, customers when narrating the requirements might talk about a drop down list, check boxes, etc. Ideally such details should be left to the design teams and where appropriate, the customer might want to review those designs or might specify the design guidelines to be followed or specify usability requirements for the vendor to conform to.

There is another school of thought that visualizing or thinking of solution early on would eliminate feasibility issues down the line. While this is partly true, the problem arise when such design constraints hide the underlying actual business requirement, which could lead to mis-interpretations later on.

3. Poor Planning

The requirement elicitation has to be a planned process with proper entry and exit criteria for each of the sub processes. There are many frameworks and techniques to perform this activity. Irrespective of the methods or techniques, the elicitation process shall comprise of the following activities: Identifying the Stake Holders; Define Use Case specifications; Generate scenarios;Organize walk throughs / interviews; Document Requirements and Validate Requirements. It is quire possible that each of these activities might have to be performed in multiple iterations. Poor planning of these activities might result in ambiguous or deficient requirements.

A related key issue is the exit planning. i.e. when to consider the requirement elicitation as complete. Depending on other project constraints, the exit criteria has to be carefully identified and further planning should be around that. For instance, if time is a key constraint, just for the sake of meeting the timeline, the elicitation activities should not be hurried up and thus ending up with an imperfect specification. Instead, in such cases, the scope can be divided into broader sub components and agree with the customer to defer some such components to a later phase based on priorities. Agile approach could also be thought of to solve this situation. i.e. start eliciting the requirements as specific user stories are taken up in respective sprints. A careful consideration of all the project constraints and priorities is a must in choosing a solution and there by coming up with the best course of action.

4. Volatility

In one of the projects we were handed off with a four hundred page requirements specification document was an year long work of the internal business analysts of the customer. But it was no surprise, that the actual business requirements were far different than it was documented as the business practices and processes  have changed a lot during this very same period. This has been a common problem that the industry has been battling with and Agile approach is emerging as a solution to this problem. This volatile nature of the business requirements requires the solutions to be delivered quicker to reap the time to market advantage.

Another aspect of volatility is that the requirements as elicited from different users / departments could be different and at times conflicting too. In some cases such differences could be misstatements or misunderstanding or in some cases it could be genuine, in which case the different requirements shall be specified appropriately and let the design teams come up with solutions to meet all such differences.

5. Undiscovered Ruins

It is the human nature to answer just the questions that were asked. Thus the business analysts shall master the art of asking appropriate follow up questions based on the responses from the customer representatives. That is where the elicitation is important. i.e. the business analysts shall provoke the customer to fully reveal what is required of the system. In the process it is very much common that certain needs might go undiscovered, but would show up later on as a deficiency. This problem can be partly addressed by identifying the right stakeholders for the purpose and then to get those validated by different stakeholders, who would look at these with a different perspective, which might bring out gaps if any.

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