(Editors note. I wrote a series of rants on requirements in a blog a friend and I were working on. It was called “Doug and Doug doing Embedded Design”. We have since taken it down mostly due to a total lack of interest from us and zero traffic. We did it to support a side project building a car mp3 system.

I am putting the rants here, because they are part of my development manifesto. I also need some easy posts as I am really busy for the next few weeks. I have edited the posts and tried to test links. If you see any issues, let me know.)

Building the product requirements

If we are treating this project like a product development effort, where do we begin? The answer in most companies is with the Marketing Requirements Document. Every engineer reading that last sentence just let out a groan of agony.
Don’t get me wrong, as an engineer I think marketing is hugely important. I have worked closely with some very good marketing people. If the marketing people you work with do not know all about this, you have bigger problems than just requirements.
But wait, Joel says we need a document. It is one of the 12 items in the Joel Test.
I can hear your argument being shouted back, “wait you fools! The 37Signals guys say don’t do it”
The truth, as usual is not black and white. Personally I lean towards Joel Spolsky’s way of thinking. You need some way to communicate what you are planning to build to everyone involved.
In the 37Signals case, there are few people involved. They do mock ups and design the UI of their applications before coding begins. That could be called the requirements, but they would object to the word.

In my experience the requirements process is always a failure. I have read and researched the topic. It seems to me that it should be very a useful and good thing to know what I am building before I start. As an engineer, I crave a detailed and complete requirements document. I am always been left hungry.
Why does Marketing get to decide anyhow? We are the engineers. We know what to build! We built the widgets that paid for the building they sit in. For anyone curious about the history, there was an article in the Harvard Business review titled “Marketing is Everything” by Regis McKenna from 1991. A book followed. If you read the article it describes the coming utopia of market driven companies and happy empowered consumers.
Alas, the practice is much harder than the theory.

Requirements are really hard

A recurring them on this blog and I have found in life is the fractal nature of reality. Requirements sound simple, write a document that says what to build. Requirements are an art and science in their own right. As we zoom in, the details are complex at any level.
There is a requirements convention and an IEEE society, plus many books.
Two of the best I have read are Exploring Requirements: Quality Before Design by Donald C. Gause, Gerald M. Weinberg  and Customer-centered products : creating successful products through smart requirements management / Ivy F. Hooks & Kristin A. Farry.
Anything by Gerald Weinberg  is usually worthwhile.

Why the requirements process fails

Here are some of the ways I have seen the requirements process fail. Doug and I will try to avoid these pitfalls in our simple requirements.

Marketing is not able

In the beginning, the founders get together around a great idea. There are few people around the lunch table. They throw out ideas and one is really good. It gets hashed out and everyone understands. They found a company and build the idea into a business.
Now after a while, it is time to build a new product. This will be a really new product, not an add on or update to the original. Of course, the founders sold out or left last summer to spend their dump truck of money they earned off the first idea.
The marketing people are now tasked with writing the requirements. Of course, they have never done anything like this before and no one on staff is a requirements expert. No one has read the books, so the time needed is underestimated. Read that last sentence again, it is the killer point.
Marketing is out trying to setup a time to talk to customers, get an NDA in place before they do, and not piss off the sales people. Because this takes much longer than expected, the engineers who were sitting in on the kickoff meeting get bored. Bored engineers are dangerous, idle hands and all that.

The Engineers know what to build

As engineers, we are industrious by nature. We go and gather our tools and begin to build something. Depending on how long the marketing group takes, we may be pretty far along.
When the document is delivered, deliberated at the highest levels in the organization, and passed down to the engineers the conversation goes something like this:
Engineer: :”We can’t do that”
Marketeer: “Why not?”
Engineer: “We never planned on that feature in the design.”
Marketeer: “Why are you planning and designing without the requriements?”
Engineer: “You took to long, it is always up to us to make up the schedule time, etc.?”
Marketeer: “What did you build?”
Engineer: “The same thing as last time, but we put a clock in it.”
Marketeer: “Arrrrggggg!!!!” Slam (Conference room door slamming and the sound of fading screams in the hall).

Sales is in the drivers seat, not marketing

This is the classic. The sales team does not want anyone grilling the customer about what comes next. If the customers know a newer, bigger and better product is around the corner, they will wait and not clear the old product off the shelf.
So, a smart sales persons says, “I talk to customers all the time, I know what they need, just ask me and we will get these requirements done quick!”. This is the sales person as proxy for the customer syndrome. As an engineer I have to say it is one of the worst syndromes a company can have.
Marketing talks to sales. Sales wants feature X. Feature X is big, ugly and difficult. A fearless engineer, lets call him “Doug” asks, “Why do you need feature X”. It goes back and back through layers and up and down the hierarchy. Finally the answer returns and it is always the same, “Customer A said they would buy $1 bazillion worth if we had feature X.” OK, now Doug asks “How much will they pay for feature X?” The answer, “Pay? no, they won’t pay extra for it.”
This time it is the engineer running through the halls with his underwear on his head screaming.

The customer says ‘whatever’

Once again the company goes out looking for feedback from the customers. When the customer finds out this is not even a real product yet, could get booted at any time, and will not be in their hands for over a year, they just don’t care.
Very few customers have time to tell you what you should be building. Usually they are busy running their own business. Yes, the product may be revolutionary and really save them money and make life easy. The fact that you still have to build it and they must wait is a complete turn off.
Even worse, if the customer realizes they have a need that your current product does not meet, maybe a competitor’s does. Or why buy now? Why not wait for version 2.0?
Most users don’t know what is possible. So it is very difficult for them to have an opinion about the next generation of your product. Most of the feedback is either completely impossible, costs way to much, or goes like this, “Just build the same thing as last time, but put a clock in it.”

Exactly how many customers responded to the survey?

Be very careful when you hear statements like “All the customers need this feature”, or “everyone we spoke to has to have it or they will not buy”.
The flip side of customer apathy is the over interested customer. If most people can not be bothered, there will be one who is more than willing to specify a product that meets their exact needs. Does it meet the needs of a larger market? Well, that is our problem, not theirs.
In more than one company on more than one occasion I have found that “all customers” really meant the one who we met. You can not do statistics with only one data point. Two is not much better. Unless you are selling to the government, there had better be more than a few customer contacts.

Requirements are just hard to get right

Most small and even large companies do not have a requirements expert. I have never actually encountered someone who has read the books I recommended above. Few companies will go to the expense of hiring a consultant, at least not at the beginning.
Most of us muddle through using one of the three methods listed above. Some poor soul is given the task of writing the actual document. It is unfortunate that the result is usually a document. A database or tool could really help.
The document is written in good faith as best as can be managed. It gets sent off to the engineers and immediately rejected. Meetings are scheduled and time is wasted going back and forth repeatedly. In the end, we build the same thing as last time, but put a clock in it. Sigh.
What went wrong? The engineers complain that the document was:

  1. not specific enough
  2. told us how to implement features, not what they were
  3. gave no priorities
  4. was too detailed
  5. had untestable requirements

In the back and forth some important things get dropped, the wrong ones get emphasized and it winds up being design by committee. A generic product is described that looks just like everything else in the market.
If no resolution can be found in the meetings, the project is thrown into development with orders to “just do it”. Maybe a consultant gets hired to sort it all out. See the section about bored engineers to see how this works out.
Rinse and repeat.

Parts two and three coming soon.


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