It's All About Requirements Iterations!

Introduction

Waterfall, agile, iterative, whatever your process, your chance of success can be measured by the number solid feedback loops between the developers and the domain experts.

In this article I’ll try to argue that no matter your process, you have to find ways to insert frequent checkpoints. I’ll argue that agile development makes this easier, but I’ll also give you an insight into how we do this at SciSpike. At SciSpike we’ve developed a platform that allows you to go through Requirements iterations in minutes by use of gamification, and it’s our belief that such approaches will become commonplace in the future.

What’s the Problem?

SemanticGap

The picture above illustrates the inherent problem. The systems we’re building are improving a domain. However, the builders are not necessarily experts on this domain.

Say for instance we’re building a remote patient monitoring application. The physicians understand the domain and know what they want to monitor. However, they don’t have the ability to convert their knowledge into running systems and must rely on programmers to do so.

The programmers don’t understand the domain and have to rely on the physicians to explain it to them. Their language and abstraction level are dramatically different.

A typical sign of such a semantic gap is a mismatch between what has been built and what was expected by the business. As late as 2012, McKinsey & Company and Oxford University did a survey that showed that on average IT projects are 45% over budget and deliver 56% less value than predicted. Also, 17% of IT projects fails in way that threatens the existence of the commissioning company.

We typically get conversation s like the ones below:

Conversation

Sounds familiar??? I’m sure it does.

Business Analysts...

BA

The chance for miscommunication is further increased by the introduction of a 3rd party to ‘negotiate’ the requirements and write them up in some functional specification. This person, let’s call him/her the business analyst, is there to help the communication between the domain expert and the implementation team.

Experienced business analysts with a great deal of domain knowledge may provide an essential service. Unfortunately, more often than not, the introduction of an intermediary increases the chances of miscommunication. This is quite natural and a well researched phenomenon. Something is always lost in the translation from business language to design language.

Loss of information in the communication between the domain experts and the developers is increased by the use of natural language. The problem with natural language is that it is nearly impossible to have two people read a natural language Requirements Specification and arrive at the same understanding. This problem has been addressed other places (see references below) and I’ll take that as given in this article.

Can We Solve Our Communication Problem with Models?

We have had elaborate ideas of building models that allow the users and programmers to communicate at a high level of abstraction. We have been pointing to other engineering disciplines where this approach has been successful.

We may hear things like: “Look, I’m building a house right now. The architect has provided me this floor plan and this façade model… Although we haven’t started building the house yet, we’re communicating with the builders. Why can’t you replicate this for software?”

Some have been suggesting that we already have such tools and modeling languages that allows us to communicate. In most cases, they are referring to CASE tools that allow us to render some of our Requirements in some abstract notation, such as UML.

It’s my experience that such models can be very useful, but only if the parties communicating understand the notation and are able to validate the models. However, I’ve yet to find projects where the domain experts are fluent in some abstract software modeling notation!

The fallacy of the modeling approach for software is that it is very difficult for domain experts to translate the notation into Requirements they understand. Most people can easily take an architectural plan and visualize what the building would look like when it’s done. However, I’ve yet to find business people that can do the same with a UML model.

When Are Errors Detected?

Errors are rarely detected before the end users or domain experts see the software in action. It’s when they use the software or see it demoed for the first time that they understand how it works. For complex systems, hours of use may be required before they discover missing Requirements or incorrectly implemented Requirements.

No Waterfall Then?

Waterfall is expensive because it tends to increase the time between when Requirements are discussed and when the resulting system is verified. There are still business domains where waterfall may be appropriate, however, waterfall almost always results in increased risk and project cost.

Government organizations seem to still prefer waterfall approaches and there are some practical reasons why they do. However, in almost all other business domains, waterfall approaches are to be avoided.

Is Agile the Answer?

Agile methodologies focus on increased communication between the domain experts and the developers. In particular, most agile methodologies promote frequent demos of the application. I typically see demos scheduled with regular intervals (once per week to once per month is common).

The demos improve communication and allow the domain experts to make course corrections early. In well functioning agile teams, we see that they rarely implement more than “one iteration worth” of code before they get verification of correctness through demos.

So, agile development is clearly an improvement over waterfall, but is it good enough? I’ll argue that even agile development can be improved. I see two major issues with agile:

  • An iteration-long-delay before verification is still too long (in particular in typical Scrum projects where the iteration length is 4 weeks).
  • In many areas, it is impractical to get the domain experts together at regular intervals. They may have to be flown in from various places or they may simply not have the time to come. Most demos I see, the domain experts are glaringly absent…

A Better Approach

At SciSpike, we’ve developed a special platform for Requirements gathering. We’ve created a language that allows us to specify the application Intent. The Intent language allows us to hold requirement-gathering sessions where the specification is tested in real-time using executable software that we generate from the Intent language. This yields some very substantial benefits:

  • Shorten the iteration cycle (we’re aiming at minutes)
  • Provide formality to the Requirements that minimizes the potential for misunderstanding.
  • Generate documentation that the parties can review and verify after the Requirements sessions.

The platform is also used to generate partial implementation (including business logic and a simple UI) that further ensures that the software development progresses in the desired direction (more of that in another blog post, I’ll just focus on the Requirements gathering in this post). We call this an Executable Requirements Specification.

The approach I’ll discuss below yields a very large set of meaningful iterations even in short Requirements sessions. The iterations may just be a few minutes long. The course corrections discovered in our minute-long-iterations are usually discovered in week-long iterations in traditional agile projects.

The Intent Languages

We have two main languages that we use to describe Intent:

  • Conversation Language. This language is a language to describe collaborative behavior. It may at first encounter look similar to workflow languages, but there are some important semantic differences. We are using a computing model based on Carl Hewitt’s actor model (we’ve changed the semantic of actors quite a bit, so we call it an agent-model instead).
  • Domain Modeling Language. This language allows us to specify conceptual information models. This language is very similar to the kind of models you can create with a UML class model.

We decided to keep our languages textual, although we have mapped (and generate) graphical views of the textual languages. We decided not to build a graphical editor because:

  • The speed of editing (much faster when textual).
  • The advantage of using textual merge/diff tools. It is now easy to support concurrent updates of the models.
  • We want users of the tools to be able to create models without having to install elaborate tools/IDE’s. Ideally, we want developers of the Intent language to only need a simple text editor.

Gathering Requirements

To have an effective Requirements session, we need the following roles present:

  • Intent language recorder. This is a person fluent in our Intent languages that record decision and makes modification to the Intent Language.
  • Moderator. Someone driving the Requirements session.
  • Domain expert(s). Someone that fully understand the domain.
  • Product owner. Someone able to make decisions as to what the product we’re building is supposed to support.

We often find people that can play multiple of the roles above. In particular, SciSpike usually provide resources that can play the roles of both Moderator and Intent Language Recorder.

We run the Requirements sessions in the following way:

MiniIteration

Each iteration may literally only take a few minutes. In a few hours, we would typically have made more Requirements iterations that most projects do in years!

Typical Requirements Capture

Most of you will probably be used to capturing Requirements in one of the following three forms:

  • Use-cases (perhaps supported by UML diagrams)
  • User stories
  • Functional specification

Although each of the forms has a long history of being used to capture Requirements, I would suggest that all three forms are suboptimal.

Use-cases (often supported by UML models) are a semi-formal form that tries to strike a compromise between being precise and at the same time being readable by the various stakeholders. I have definitely seen some well defined use-cases, but most of the ones I see suffer from two fatal flaws:

  • They are ambiguous (I can almost always create a simple questionnaire (usually with multiple choice questions), ask the creators/reviewers of the use-case to read through them and finally administer the questionnaire. Usually, I get an almost random distribution of answers across the questionnaire.
  • They are cumbersome to construct. I’ve witnessed business analysts spending weeks to define even the simplest use-case.

User stories may work out great when the domain experts are readily available. They are somewhat of a reaction to the formality of the use-cases. However, in most cases, all they do is to defer the discussion to later. They act as a simple hook for us to remember a feature, but the details have to be worked out later. In many cases, the domain experts are not available when the user stories are being expanded and we often waste multiple iterations where the developers interpret what they think the stakeholders want, demo it to learn the “real requirement”, then finally reimplement it to fulfill the actual requirement.

Example

Let me show an example of how such a Requirements session may work. I think it will be very difficult to explain this in text, so I have made a small video that may help illustrate how it all works.

The below videos are the same. I've just made it available both on YouTube and on Vimeo. I've had some bad luck with YouTube where they sometimes shorten the videos, so I decided to make it available on Vimeo also

Vimeo

YouTube

Alternatives

Unless you also built a tool like us, you may now ask, how can I do what you showed? Being selfish, I would say, contact SciSpike and something can be arranged…

However, if you don’t want to go down that route, there are other alternatives that you can apply to decrease the time required for a single Requirements iteration.

The main thing to focus on is:

  • How do you capture Requirements and are those Requirements meaningful and precise enough for all the stakeholders?

I’ve seen very meaningful sessions using tools like storyboarding, manual role-plays, screen mockup tools, etc. Try to gamify the Requirements gathering. Make the specifications as executable as possible.

Conclusion

In this article I argued that the cost and risk of software projects are inversely proportional to the length of each meaningful Requirements iteration. By a meaningful iteration, I mean an interval where the stakeholders explained some features, the development organization captured the Requirements of the features, and the stakeholders are able to verify that the development organization has understood the feature.

In a typical software organization, the length of an iteration varies from 1 week to multiple months. SciSpike has developed a platform that allows you to shorten the iteration length to minutes. It is our experience that this dramatically reduces risk and shortens the duration of a software project.

References

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