Requirements and Acceptance Criteria Are Critical

Over the past few months, I have worked on a project with precious few requirements and no acceptance criteria. Essentially the dictate is done means “keep coding until I say it is fine”. The problem is this insanity never ends, as changes are placed into queue before the coding is “done”.

There are a few myths I have seen in action in various businesses. Here they are with the reality following:

  • Agile means loose requirements and very little documentation – This is false. Actually Agile needs requirements and documentation as much as any other methodology, the requirements are just stated in the form of a user story and some of the documentation is in the form of unit tests.
  • Business needs to be fluid, so we should not tie down “done” with a firm set of criteria – In reality, you need to define done as explicitly as you can. You may change (request) the definition over time, but a developer without a clear path is as likely to code away from the solution as code towards it.
  • Hire a bunch of really smart developers and you can get around firm specifications and acceptance criteria – While very smart developers are faster at coding their way out of a hole, and less likely to code inescapable holes, there was only one real miracle worker that ever walked the face of the earth … and it is not your developer.

    NOTE that really smart developers often over-engineer or over-complexify solutions when left to their own designs.

We keep trying to view planning (with its outcome of requirements and a definition of done) as an optional exercise. This is generally done in the name of time, but how much time is blown having a developer rewrite code? In my experience, not defining what is being built has always turned out more expensive than spending time up front to plan. If you are truly overloaded, rather than avoid planning, you should force planning. Otherwise, you will spin at the end of the project, trying to “plan” after development, which means figure out how to get the code to do what I want with the least amount of hours. This is an exercise is low quality and relies on a lot of luck.

A couple of things I have noticed in my career:

  • “Do everything this {website} does in a {mobile application} is not a requirement (you can change the {} types for your situation, if you like). As much as you might think it is a requirement, what is being done is up for interpretation, even if the basic business rules are the same, and the developer’s interpretation and yours are as likely to be different than they are to be the same. This is especially true when moving from one form factor (ex: web to mobile) or coding paradigm to another (ex: webforms to MVC).
  • “Code this until I am happy with it” is a recipe for disaster. While it leaves a lot of flexibility for the person who wants to be “happy” to massage the outcome, it causes badly bolted on code as new rules are manufactured. In the lucky cases, the code can be refactored to some level of quality, but this is more of an exception than a rule. Ouch!

Let’s take a quick example I can think of lately. The requirement, as loosely stated, was put together a tree of categories for eCommerce and append products to the tree. Then create a detailed file for the products. The acceptance was “I will let you know when it is right”. Here is part of the history:

  1. Add categories from another source
  2. Exclude some categories
  3. Replace images found in data source with a dictionary of categories and images
  4. Use a template to create a tree where none existed and append to a specific spot in the tree
  5. Create a featured products file
  6. Append that file to a specific node in the main tree file
  7. Exclude categories with no children or products
  8. Scrub HTML for certain nodes in the XML document, replacing many of the characters with HTML escape sequences
  9. Search for certain “illegal XML characters” and replace them (if acceptance criteria were built, it might have been as simple as convert from UTF-8 to UTF-7 – live an learn?)
  10. Do a binary scrub of characters not caught with the loose ruleset in #9

All in all, numerous hours (weeks?) were burned due to the lack of planning on many levels, equating to tens of thousands of dollars. If this is the rule in the organization, and you add all of the projects up, how many hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of dollars is the company burning through that could be avoided by setting down requirements and a definition of done?

What if requirements change during development? If this is not the best reason to use Agile methodologies, I don’t know what is.But, even if you use waterfall, you stop development on the feature(s) in question and refine the requirements before moving forward. To either a) let the development continue or b) continue altering output until “happy” is like dining in a really crappy fine dining establishment … a lot of money for a really bad meal.

The point here is you can’t plan a trip without knowing where you are going. By the same token, you can’t build an application without knowing what done looks like.

Peace and Grace,

Twitter: @gbworld

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