On Software Requirements

There are a couple high level tradeoffs in the requirements specification process. Each tradeoff can be thought as an axis: Specificity (detailed vs vague), Audacity (visionary vs trivial/checkmark), Customer-driven (needs vs wants; with timelines).

It is possible for them to be too detailed – the more detailed and specific the requirements are, the less understandable they are and the less flexible they are in a rapidly changing context. But if the requirements are too vague, then they are likely to be misunderstood or ignored by a development team. This is a case where directly talking to the end users and clear communication between team members to flesh out use cases will help.

Also if the requirements are too visionary then they may appear infeasible to the team.  Showing they are achievable by looking at related products is one solution. Decomposing the target into achievable modules is another. If they are too near-term, then they may appear trivial and fail to excite the team.

Finally the requirements should be well grounded in customer use cases and narrowly stated, rather than inherited as a long list from past successful technical products. This is probably the most important and hardest thing in practice.

Specifying the right amount of detail for development targets that are grounded, challenging and achievable is an important skill.

Another take on this topic is Joel Spolsky’s series on writing painless functional specifications.

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