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Getting Accurate Specifications for Software?

Cliff posted more than 7 years ago | from the needed-before-a-single-line-of-code-is-written dept.

Programming 147

spiffcow asks: "I design internal software for users that are largely computer-illiterate, and obtaining accurate specs for these programs has become a huge challenge. In the most recent instance, I asked for detailed specs on what an accounting program should do (i.e. accounting rules, calculation methods, and so forth), and received a Word document mock-up of an input screen, complete with useless stickers. This seems to be the norm around here. When I asked my boss (the head Sales manager) for specs, he responded saying that it was my responsibility to determine what was needed. How do I convey to the users that, in order to develop the software they want, I need detailed, accurate specs?"

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he's right (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18260174)

Your boss is correct: it is your job to get accurate specs.

In my experience, the best way to get these is *not* asking people what they want or need (because they are usually not capable of putting that into words), but to observe how they do things right now, and determine which features they need (or which features would ease their workload) that way.

Re:he's right (5, Insightful)

KDan (90353) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260224)

Absolutely. Get your ass off your chair, walk over to the users, and talk to them about what they need. Then write yourself a detailed spec if you feel you need it. Then turn that spec into some paper-based mockups and walk the users through it. Then make any corrections needed. Then write the software.

And count your lucky stars that your company is incapable of writing proper specs - if they were, they would have outsourced your job to India or Brazil a long time ago.


Re:he's right (3, Interesting)

qwijibo (101731) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260876)

Are there actually companies that write proper specs? I've only been doing IT for 19 years and I have yet to find any place where it actually happens. It's something I've always heard of, but never ran into anyone who had actually seen it happen. Generally, I've found the organizations least capable of writing specs to be the ones most likely to outsource, not the other way around. I think the idea is that if you don't know what you're doing, you may as well pay as little as possible since you already know you're going to fail. I agree with that philosophy, which is why I expect to be paid more for projects that people want to succeed. =)

The real goal is to ensure that the developers and users/customers are trying to address the same problem. The specs/requirements/design phases are just ways to document everything so that when it doesn't happen, someone can point to a document and said "this is what you said you wanted, pay us". It's a legal CYA. This is why it's more important to have these documents when the users and developers aren't part of the same small group of employees.

Re:he's right (2, Insightful)

Zarf (5735) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261204)

And count your lucky stars that your company is incapable of writing proper specs - if they were, they would have outsourced your job to India or Brazil a long time ago.

Damn straight. All of us who get specs like these are in a special place. We have to bridge both the Analyst and Programmer jobs. If you are lucky the person who writes your specs won't go on a power trip and scream at you if you don't write exactly what they put in their word document. If you are lucky you have been given the chance to find the needs, fill the needs, and write great software.

You might not be that lucky. But, the harder you work the luckier you get.

Re:he's right (1)

Moggyboy (949119) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260268)

Hey there AC, I don't think it's that clear cut. For example, I currently consult to a large insurance company, and part of my job is to take complicated mathematical specifications from our actuarial department and implement them in our calculations engine. Even now, after having to clarify the previous specification with them in endless meetings over the last three months, I received a new one this morning with the exact same problems - vaguely defined arguments in pages of calculations that assume I am familiar with abstract actuarial concepts (not to mention the annoying contradictory footnotes). Yes if it's basic program requirements you're talking about (i.e. I want to be able to search through users by name etc.) then it is the software engineers function to hone these requirements until they are sufficiently defined, unambiguous and clearly understood by both the developer and the user. That's a given. But in the case that you are implementing complex software modules in an industry requiring specialized knowledge, a certain amount of the responsibility lies with the users.

Re:he's right (1)

russ1337 (938915) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260756)

>>>> "part of my job is to take complicated mathematical specifications from our actuarial department......vaguely defined arguments in pages of calculations ........not to mention the annoying contradictory footnotes...."

Wow, if you're having trouble figuring out how the Insurance calculations are carried out, then that leaves little hope for the rest of us 'customers' to figure out how to lower our premiums...

It also shows that the insurers probably want to charge more no matter what you do.

You really should post their formula you know....

Re:he's right (2, Insightful)

DudeTheMath (522264) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261120)

No, it doesn't "leave little hope". What it means is that GP isn't up to the job. What he's talking about is part of my job, too (turning pages of actuarial documentation into business calculations). GP needs to get erself some training so that what e thinks are "vaguely defined arguments" suddenly reveal themselves to be well-known, precisely defined shorthand for (occasionally) complicated actuarial entities.

Re:he's right (1)

Moggyboy (949119) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261194)

Normally, I would agree with you, but being informed on actuarial terms is not my business. My business is providing design, implementation and maintenance on software projects, usually over short periods of time (3-6 months) and in varying industries. In the past four years I've designed and implemented software in the clinical sciences, health sciences, construction, telecommunications and insurance industries (successfully I might add), so forgive me if I don't run out and do a six month course on each.

Re:he's right (0, Troll)

stanmann (602645) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261402)

If you can't, don't or won't understand the needs of your customers, you'll never meet their needs. You're the guy that gives the rest of us a bad name, and the reason why people assume it's the computers fault.

Re:he's right (1)

Moggyboy (949119) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261606)

Again, I agree with the sentiments of this post, but the specific case I'm talking about can be expressed as a mathematical formula instead of something like "apply loading and commissions here", especially when the people writing the spec are fully aware that I'm a newbie to the industry-speak. Of course there are situations where it is required that you have an detailed understanding of the business to correctly interpret the business requirements, but this is not one of them. Systems I've worked on in the past have required long hours of poring over and clarifying requirements before work commences, and I always leave adequate user and developer documentation. So far I'm averaging two callbacks per project (over the last four years) to fix bugs and provide additional information, which by anyone's standards is a good hit rate. So spare me the "thou art the source of all evil" speech.

Re:he's right (4, Insightful)

idontgno (624372) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261414)

but being informed on actuarial terms is not my business

Then you'd better have some damn good and damn accommodating domain experts.

An analyst's job is to understand the business rules and figure out how they can be sanely implemented in an IT solution. (Or, more importantly, when they can't.) And unfortunately, that sometimes means learning the jargon.

That's why my general (25-year) experience says that the best analysts are, first and formemost, generalists: capable of quickly absorbing the rudiments of any computable field of human endeavor. If you're doing the systems engineering for an accountancy, you'd better learn the fundamentals of accounting. Automating medical records? Learn medical recordkeeping. Weather forecasting? Heh. I could pass for a forecaster now, in casual conversation, because I've worked on weather data-gathering and forecasting systems so long.

Obviously, you are one of those quick-study generalists I spoke of, because of the breadth of (successful, I presume) systems you've helped implement.

That just leaves the problem of customers who don't actually know what they do, at least in enough clarity and specificity to implement as software. That's just a matter of patience and iteration. Prototyping can be helpful here, if you have time. Otherwise, I guess you just have to sigh and assume your first cut will be wrong.

And parent comment is right, too. MOD PARENT UP! (4, Insightful)

Futurepower(R) (558542) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260270)

I agree with the parent comment. It's too big an intellectual challenge for most people to think about the details of software design. Users just want their software to work.

The correct approach is a very loving one. You try to discover what would make their work easiest, and make the software do everything software can do. Most jobs require that a person turn himself or herself partly into a robot. That's wrong. If a machine can do it, a machine should do it.

Programmers typically say to this, "I just want to be a programmer, not a sociologist." The real world requires every one of us to be a sociologist, or be out of touch with what's happening.

Is U.S. government violence a good in the world, or does violence just cause more violence?

Re:And parent comment is right, too. MOD PARENT UP (4, Insightful)

walt-sjc (145127) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260994)

Domain knowledge is what makes you really valuable to a company. As suggested above, go and work with the users to figure it out, and then implement it. If anyone wonders what is taking you so long, be prepared by documenting exactly how you spent your time learning the procedures / formulas. That kind of documentation is useful come review / raise / bonus time. Seriously, it can take years to gain high levels of domain knowledge.

One example I can bring up from my past is designing industrial test equipment used for calibrating mechanical metering devices. I spent a month where I worked side by side with the people who would be using the equipment, 9 months developing prototypes (including all the hardware and software) and ended up with a product that cuts a 15 minute procedure down to 2. Again, I had to work with the users to see how they used the prototypes, and refine the hardware / software to real-life conditions. I even had to consult with a physics professor at the local university to help with some of the complex flow equations (physics is not my specialty, but I know enough to be dangerous... :-)

Could I have ever expected my users to develop detailed specs? No way - it's not one of their core competencies.

...and prototype (1)

blorg (726186) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260276)

I design internal software for users that are largely computer-illiterate ...and yet you expect these people to write high quality accurate software specs. Why?

Parent is exactly right, it _is_ your job. But even then, if you need specs, they are for your own use. There is no point writing thick specification documents for the users as even if they are accurate, they will not be read/understood by the people you are writing the software for.

So prototype. Start off with a paper based mock-up as sibling poster suggests, and follow up with a complete click through GUI before you write any code. Run through this with them and make sure it is what they need before you actually write the software.

Re:...and prototype (1)

Hognoxious (631665) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260710)

yet you expect these people to write high quality accurate software specs. Why?
Because they're the business people (specifically accountants) who will use the system, and to build it the programmer needs to know what the business rules are (i.e. what an accounting system should do)? That's what I would call a functional spec, which is an entirely different thing from technical spec.

Re:he's right (2, Insightful)

geoffspear (692508) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261214)

Exactly. Submitter says "I design software..." but in reality he wants someone else to design the software so he can just be the codemonkey who programs it.

an unrealistic ideal (1)

listening to triplej (813299) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260176)

This is the kind of problem I always run into, websites, databases, you name it.

It would be great to be given a comprehensive and accurate spec for development, but in my experience it just doesn't happen! Maybe if your working for some large development company - where it is someone else's job to develop such a specification, you may be lucky enough to experience such bliss, but elsewhere you can just forget it.

More and more I am learning that it is just easier to do everything as best you can, using your own judgement, doing all the information gathering yourself. If what you do is not what is wanted, then just make the changes. It might suck, but that's how it goes.

Re:an unrealistic ideal (1)

Mountaineer1024 (1024367) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260240)

On my last major project I was handed a detailed spec which I went and discussed with the client.
Out of that discussion came spec 2.
I started developing based on spec 2 but when we demonstrated some early milestones we suddenly had spec 3.
My bosses are starting to get annoyed by this point, leading to spec 4, which is being implemented DESPITE the client pointing out things that would have led to specs 5 and 6.
It's a crazy old world when the client doesn't really know what they want, or how to describe it in any usefull manner.
Of course, I certainly wouldn't want to be doing the clients job either. :P

Re:an unrealistic ideal (4, Insightful)

cyclop (780354) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260510)

I am by no mean a professional developer, however I develop a data analysis application that my collegues use in my lab (I hope to release it on Sourceforge soon). I do it not only for *my* data analysis, but also for other kinds of analyses, so I discuss "specs" from my collegues and implement them.

What I found is that when they are in front of the app, after a bit of usage they think "could you add feature X?" "how can I do Y?" and so on. I implement X and Y, and only then they ask "oh, you did Y? So why not Z?" etc. So the spec becomes dynamic, in the sense that only when they see a milestone accomplished new possibilities come to their (and my) mind. It's a climbing process. I don't know if it's the same also for pro developers.

Re:an unrealistic ideal (4, Interesting)

Diomedes01 (173241) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260870)

What I found is that when they are in front of the app, after a bit of usage they think "could you add feature X?" "how can I do Y?" and so on. I implement X and Y, and only then they ask "oh, you did Y? So why not Z?" etc. So the spec becomes dynamic, in the sense that only when they see a milestone accomplished new possibilities come to their (and my) mind. It's a climbing process. I don't know if it's the same also for pro developers.

If you are lucky enough to live and work in an environment that allows this, then it is, IMHO, the absolute best method for developing software. Now unfortunately, in much of the world, and especially at larger companies, very rigid software development practices are followed that make this sort of agile, iterative development difficult or impossible. I am lucky; I work at such a company,and work directly with a group of developers who use a very rigid, unflexible system; we don't see the product until it's been completed based on the spec - any iterative feedback I or my colleagues has is worthless, and would have to be done to fit into the next quarterly release cycle. Luckily, I also do my own development for some internal departments, and am given the freedom to work in a more agile manner.

Re:an unrealistic ideal (1)

cyclop (780354) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261112)

If you are lucky enough to live and work in an environment that allows this, then it is, IMHO, the absolute best method for developing software.

Being an "amateur", well, not always, because more often than note I had to refactor to allow things that it was never intended to do first. As of today I'm writing a plugin architecture and I'm rewriting the code to be everywhere as elastic as possible. Yes I should have done it first, but I'm not a pro developer and this is a good lesson I'm learning...

Re:an unrealistic ideal (2, Informative)

PhilipMckrack (311145) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261884)

In my experience this has always been the case. Some people are blessed with the ability to take what is on paper and visualize how it will function in reality but I don't work with anyone like that. No matter how much I drill down specs on paper and work things out, once development starts there are always changes. The best you can do is roll with it and develop the product they ultimately want. From the start write software that is easy to modify. Lucky for us, the client that usually has the most changes for me also pays us by the hour so it works to our benefit.

Well... (2, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18260184)

Step 1: Export those Word documents to HTML
Step 2: Place HTML documents on webserver, hang around on slashdot until deadline and claim all their requirements have been fulfilled.
Step 3: ???
Step 4: Fired!

Systems Engineering (4, Insightful)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260188)

Its called Systems Engineering and its a whole other profession. For a large, complex system like the ATC systems I work on syseng could easily account for 30% of your staff. Remember that getting the design right in the first place it the hardest part.

The only way I can think of the convince the "sales" people who apparently run your site is to create a really big stuff up and document it in advance to make them culpable. The problem is that they will probably just get rid of you when they respond.

You could try a kind of passive-agressive approach. Keep misunderstanding them. A bit like a monty python sketch. Don't go so far that they really get angry. Judge it so they come to their senses and start to write down exactly what they want.

Isn't there an old adage: The user got exactly what they asked for but not what they want.

I think you are screwed. Sorry. I have been in that situation before.

Re:Systems Engineering (2, Insightful)

JonathanR (852748) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260366)

If you know what detailed and accurate specs are, then you'll just have to sit down and write them. Bear in mind that this will involve a lot of interviewing of the prospective system users, to discover and document what they do now, and figure how best to implement it in your new system. I hope you've budgeted for this process in your estimate.

Re:Systems Engineering (2, Insightful)

Mikkeles (698461) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260848)

This is correct. You require someone to fill the role of domain expert (aka subject matter expert) who can provide clear requirements of what has to be done and guides a UI expert in how the users are to interact with the functionality. If you have to fulfill both roles and don't know the users' business, then the system will probably be a turd regardless of how well the software is designed and coded.

No, it's not necessarily your fault; however, programmers should become familiar with at least one area in which they intend to work.

Next stop, the unemployment office (1, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18261408)

How are you still employed? The users aren't your enemy, they're your customer. How would like it if you went to a tax accountant and he treated you this way just because you hadn't done all of the hard work before you brought your information to him?

Ignore this poster. He's probably "between jobs" right now.

If you really want detailed specs from your users then create some forms for them to fill out with specific questions about the aspects you are unsure they need included (like calculations to be performed at certain steps). Better yet, if you give them a proposed workflow diagram with adequate explanation of each step and let them crtitque it you'll end up with a much better idea of what they're asking for. You'll get the added benefit of getting the user to start thinking about how things work outside of their own little specialty. You may learn something in the bargain as well.

I would have to agree with a previous poster that anyone who expects to only have to do coding after someone else has done the spec gathering should not be surprised when they get notice that their job has been moved to Mumbai.

Something I struggle with as well (2, Interesting)

myurr (468709) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260194)

This is something that I also struggle with, so I'm very interested in any tips 'n' tricks that others can supply. The only useful trick that I've found helpful in the past is to take an iterative approach to the documentation, repeatedly sending drafts to the interested parties and encouraging feedback. Often their problem is that they don't know what they want, only what they don't want - so starting to lay out some options before them helps them make decisions on what they would like to see. Start at a high level, and slowly drill down on the detail - making assumptions where necessary to keep the process moving, but always verifying those assumptions with the interested parties.

Re:Something I struggle with as well (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18260782)

...but do they actually read your drafts or do they just fix the typos and not focus on the content?

I have written many specs and interface documents but no one seems to read them or use them.

Re:Something I struggle with as well (2, Insightful)

Diomedes01 (173241) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260902)

I've found that you can iterate on a design document all you want, and create nothing but churn. I have found that it's far better to iterate with an actual prototype or mock-ups, because users don't think the same way looking at a sheet of paper as they do looking at an application. I've started using Ruby on Rails or PHP to do quick and dirty prototypes for our users (most of our internal intranet sites are Servlet/JSP based, but it's so painful we only want to do that piece once). Lately, my management sees the functioning prototype and says "hey, we're done" and has me polish it up and then move on to another project. The prototypes end up becoming the final app. I'm not sure how I feel about this; the "final" product (in my mind) never gets done, butthe users are happy... which I guess at the end of the day is the most important thing.

Re:Something I struggle with as well (1)

Dan Ost (415913) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261008)

Don't send them the documentation, send them an application that they can play with. Then, based on their feedback, write you're own detailed specs and update the application accordingly. As time goes on, your application will begin to have all the fleshed out features that the user needs, and, since the user was involved from the beginning, they'll be familiar with how the app fits into their work flow (this should keep them from asking for radical or contradictory changes with each iteration).

Get the user involved as early as possible. Writing software can be fun, but if the product isn't something the user can/will use, then you've wasted you company's money.

accurate specs (3, Funny)

Patrik_AKA_RedX (624423) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260202)

You draw a pentagram on the floor and place lit candles at each of the corners, then I'll dig up the old spell book. We should have this covered slightly after the first full moon.

Force them to say What, not How (5, Informative)

Bloke down the pub (861787) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260204)

I try to get them to tell me how they would do it with a pencil and paper. They won't anwser the question as asked, of course. They'll say "I need some trancaction where I can put..." or "there needs to be some file where..."[1] - at this point you interrupt and ask them, again, how they would do it with pencil and paper. Eventually, you'll get to the answer. Then you, the developer/analyst, should be able to work out how to do it.

This forces them to concentrate on the what, not the how. You'd hope people would have the ability to intellectually grok the difference, without such a trick. You'd be disappointed.

[1] To them, file/screen/transaction/table/program are all synonyms. Never, ever, trust their terminology.

Re:Force them to say What, not How (2, Informative)

cpuffer_hammer (31542) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261148)

Right on, I like to say pen, note cards, a calculator, and maybe a clock. I then observe the process. Only then do I write an initial specification. I take that back to the customer for their review. If they have questions I determine if the question is about the specification, the process, or a lack of understanding. Then we make corrections and improvements.

I also ask questions to determine if the customer understands the specification and the process it describes.

The customer then has to agree to the specification.

Then work can start on the code. If during the process there needs to be a change, if I or the customer finds a problem or wants a change or feels money can be saved if something is done a different way, this process is repeated to create a change order.

As to questions, I always try to ask questions that do not have yes/no answers. For example (If I was working for a rare coin shop) when a new coin is bought by the your coin shop what happens to it next? What should happen to it? Or after the specification has been written, what will you do with a new coin based on this specification?

Yes, you may even have to help them change practices and policies. If you make this a value added, sell it as a additional benefit of automation or reautomation. (Rare coins shop again) when you add the new coin to the inventory right away the system will check it against the "customer coins wanted list" and you may be able to flip it (pun intended) to a customer who wants it.

There will be more than one contract: your employment contract, the project specification, change orders, and others. Don't skip the documentation.

Re:Force them to say What, not How (2, Insightful)

mgblst (80109) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261670)

Do you like meetings, because the only way to do this propertly is lots of meetings. Talk to them, talk to them some more, go away and think about it, and talk to them again. Talk about how you think it should go. Then get corrections. Ask lots of questions.

WHen you start to get an idea, produce a document and then, in another meeting, go through it with them.

This job is more about dealing with people, extracting little bits of information from them, getting them to think about the problem, more than programming.

Impossible (5, Interesting)

synx (29979) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260210)

What you think your job is, and what your actual job is are two quite different things. Traditional software 'methodology' is bunk and doesn't work - this is why you are confused.

You think it works like this:
- User knows what they want
- They write it down
- You...?
- Programmers implement it (probably wrongly)

If you consider your job more like an architect, then you will see the flow is really more like:

- Users think they know what they want (maybe)
- They can tell you what they DONT want
- You interpret their needs/desires in to a design and spec
- Programmers implement it (probably wrongly, but nothing is perfect)

If you think about what architects do for their clients, they figure out roughly what the client wants (house, building, garden, etc) and various parameters specified and unspecified in fuzzy things (building code, safety margins, design principles, aesthetics, etc). They then produce a number of different designs and design ideas to run past the client. Iterate a few times and then once they have sign off, build it.

If you were required to write some 300 page doc about the house you want, you'd be finding a new architect. Likewise, make life easy on your customers. I'm sure they have pre-existing documents and references regarding the accounting rules they need implemented (I assume you are familiar with accounting - if not, why the hell are you building it?!). But as for the UI and other software design features, most people just want something that (a) works (b) well (c) usable (d) does what they need. Meaning, don't ask for label or window placement.

If you have a RAD tool such as interface builder on OS X then you can create semi-functional mocks easily. I'm sure .NET has something similar.

Lazy (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18260220)

Why don't you have the users write the program as well? Your boss is right. Do your job. You should be fired.

Yes. This is hard. (2, Interesting)

WasterDave (20047) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260226)

obtaining accurate specs for these programs has become a huge challenge ... When I asked my boss (the head Sales manager) for specs, he responded saying that it was my responsibility to determine what was needed."

You're trolling, right? I hope so.

Yes, it is hard. Much harder than actually writing the code. Yes, it is your problem. Software Engineering is a profession. That's why you and I get paid the big (in theory) bucks ... to make hard things your problem. And solve that problem.

Without going into too much depth the process you have described (accurate specs, make software, test software against spec) is known as the waterfall model and is famously difficult to do for non-trivial projects. Can be done, don't get me wrong, but very very hard. Better, probably, would be to take an iterative approach: Take the word doc and bash together a prototype (RealBasic, Ruby on Rails, whatever); drop the prototype in front of the users and make notes as they say "nooo! not like that, it needs to do X, Y and Z"; feed back into the prototype and try again. Finally use this prototype as a "living" requirements document. The hard part is persuading the pointy haired types that that prototype is, in fact, not the completed piece of software. Yeah, good luck with that.

Not wishing to sound offensive but it sounds like your company needs to hire someone with more experience to act as a project manager. There's nothing wrong with writing code to spec (no matter how it's translated) and letting it be someone else's job to keep the project on track and ensure the users get what they want. And, in case you hadn't noticed, this job is hard f'kin work.


Re:Yes. This is hard. (1)

Bloke down the pub (861787) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260254)

Better, probably, would be to take an iterative approach: Take the word doc and bash together a prototype (RealBasic, Ruby on Rails, whatever); drop the prototype in front of the users and make notes as they say "nooo! not like that, it needs to do X, Y and Z";
That's the perfect approach, if your sole goal is to find what their favourite colour is.

Re:Yes. This is hard. (1)

rikkus-x (526844) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260316)

That's the perfect approach, if your sole goal is to find what their favourite colour is.

Which is why many mockup tools specifically try to make the mocked-up screens as 'functional' (read: ugly) as possible, to stop people saying 'I think I'd prefer it in minty buff'

Re:Yes. This is hard. (1)

Hognoxious (631665) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260790)

GP was joking I assume, but many jokes are based on truth. There is a tendency to focus on the external appearance. I don't know whether this is because it's easier to say "put it there" or "make that green" than to actually think and articulate "I want to able to search based on name, zipcode and date of last order. Or any combination of those... and the date must be +- 4 days. Working days..."; it might just be plain human shallowness.
I was at a client once, not directly connected with it but they were supposed to be developing a CRM system. I knew one of the developers and he basically told me the design team had gotten as far as the screen layouts and more or less given up.

Re:Yes. This is hard. (1)

Dan Ost (415913) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261034)

Fortunately, the appearance is the easiest thing to change. You can put a different interface in front of the user with each iteration without having to make any changes to the backend. Of course, by doing that, you keep the user from gaining as much familiarity with the app as development progresses (which usually hurts their ability to give meaningful feedback).

Re:Yes. This is hard. (1)

Hognoxious (631665) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261108)

It doesn't matter how easy it is to change, it's still a distraction from what really matters - the functionality. The original question was about an accounting system. You can iterate 200 times with every shade of sky-blue pink with orange dots. But if you don't know up front the difference between a debit and a credit, and that they should balance, you won't know at the end either. Because the users won't tell you.

Re:Yes. This is hard. (1)

walt-sjc (145127) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261074)

GP was joking I assume, but many jokes are based on truth. There is a tendency to focus on the external appearance.

I once worked with a new-hire programmer who had been asked to prototype some data-entry screens... He ended up demoing a UI with pink text on lime green background. When asked why he chose those colors, it turned out that he was color blind... He was taken off UI projects and put on back-end code :-)

But yeah, I agree with the statement that the customer usually focuses on how things look rather than how they work.

Re:Yes. This is hard. (2, Interesting)

ivano (584883) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260530)

It's not up to him to make all the decisions since it's not him that is taking the risk if the thing doesn't give the right answer or says the transaction is done when it hasn't. You want him to make the decisions that people higher up should be. Decisions need to be made by the person who has the risk. Sure testing, documentation, hell, even code-writing is his job, but then to insult him about his abilities and then talk about how fucken difficult the thing is is a bit back-handed.

You even mention him needing a good project manager (PM). Well if he hasn't got a PM then wouldn't the advice be "get a good PM" (not just calling him a troll). I've seen too many projects die because the software engineer is a "yes" man. "yes, I can do that", "sure, i can fit that in". Whenever I see a developer do that I worry. Because if he's saying that to me he's probably saying that to all the other PMs and bosses and so wasting time on projects he's not allocated to. So the guy works day and nigh and on weekends and when the big roll-out comes he's so crashed and burnt he can't even think straight let alone fix the last few bugs.

Your job as a software engineer is to also stand your ground, say, "*You* need to prioritize the tasks you want me to do", "*You* need to give me the financial algorithms in a way I can implement them" etc etc. That's what's fucken hard. The other shit is easy :)

Become an analyst, and hire programmers (4, Funny)

cerberusss (660701) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260232)

Become an analyst, and hire programmers. Then:
  1. Don't make requirements anyway. Demand that they organize and create use cases and make them code the whole thing from there.
  2. If that's not possible, let a web designing agency do screen layouts. Then demand they only talk to the agency. Web designers are easy to talk with; they don't bother with stupid details. Actually, they don't bother with anything but the screen layouts.
  3. If you really must create requirements, create documents in PowerPoint. Make high-level, short and non-descriptive requirements. It's quite easy to design a system when you're in orbit instead of both feet on the ground.
  4. If you haven't driven the project into the ground, create documents in Word. Word offers fantastic opportunities! Use track changes, nested tables, extremely large tables, bizarre macros, hidden notes/comments, etc.
  5. Wait with submitting for review until you have a nice stack of documents. It's so much more economic (for you).
  6. Do NOT refer to any other requirements. Just copy/paste and then make small changes.
  7. Require prototypes in VB. Later, you can ask them what's taking them so long.
  8. They want to MoSCoW your requirements. Conduct several meetings on hot, sweaty days and slowly but surely make them understand that each and every requirement is a must-have.
  9. Make it difficult to let them get the latest requirement. Make it easy to get confused with old versions.
  10. Make circular requirements. But don't make it too obvious: make a chain of, say, 10-20 requirements and only THEN refer back to the first one.
  11. Make the versioning consistent with the 'Naked Gun' movies: 1, 2, 2-and-a-half, etc.
  12. Never uniquely identify requirements! That way, it's too easy for analists and developers to refer and to maintain them.
  13. Make sub-requirements that are sometimes numbered, sometimes with characters, and just for the hell of it, drop in some bullets, too! NEVER, EVER make it possible to sort the requirements in any way. Make sure to use the auto-numbering in Word, but sometimes just type them in yourself!

    123. This is a major requirement.

    123.1. This is a minor.

    123.01A.1. Please refer to 782.5.1¾.1A.

  14. Hide major requirements in a very deep nesting:

    123.5.1.A. This is a MAJOR requirement.
  15. Requirements should contradict each other, but not too obvious:

    78.a7.A. A history should be kept for all items. Never should any item be permanently deleted.

    ... skip a version and 300 pages ...

    342.8. Wullywuz must always be permanently deleted.
  16. Make sure it's hard to reach you. Go live in another country. A different timezone is even better! Convince your boss to outsource to an offshore company, which is easy, since it's all the hype these days.
  17. Include database tables in your requirements.
  18. When the project has already started, make major changes. But first talk your boss into thinking that the system without that particular change is basically worthless.
  19. ???
  20. Profit!!!

Re:Become an analyst, and hire programmers (1)

$RANDOMLUSER (804576) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260466)

I'd be laughing if I wasn't crying. Brilliant. Bravo, good sir.

Re:Become an analyst, and hire programmers (1)

Mark Hood (1630) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260606)

You are my first manager, and I claim my five pounds :)

Great write-up, but you missed one:
123. This is a major requirement.

123.1. This is a minor.

123.01. This is a critical one, note that it's NOT the same as 123.1, or 123.10.


PS now just use Word for the requirements doc, and some requirements are auto-numbered as paragraphs so they move, and others aren't, so you can easily get:

1. Introduction
2. Requirements
2.1 Important requirements
2.1.1 Requirement 1.
2.1.2 2.1-Requirement 2.2 ...

Forget it (4, Insightful)

Moggyboy (949119) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260238)

After working in the industry as a consultant for nearly 10 years, I can honestly say that none of the following has ever occurred:
* I've received a specification for a new project that accurately tells me what the program should do, and doesn't assume prior knowledge of the entire business;
* I've read the original specification for an existing project that matches the way it's actually been implemented;
* Management have believed me when I've informed them that either of these conditions are occurring and are preventing me from doing my job in a timely, effective fashion;

The lesson to be learned here is that there is no tried-and-true methodology that works across the board in IT, and thus there is no established framework for non IT people devising specifications for IT people. The problem is always going to be that each person in a business is so far down their own specializing holes that they forget how much people in other departments know or don't know. I liken it to teaching someone how to drive a car after you've driven for many years - after a while these things become ingrained in you, to the point you forget that your pupil doesn't know to hit the clutch before changing gears. CRUNCH!

Re:Forget it (1)

ivano (584883) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260570)

I wish I had mod points to give. A tip of the hat to you.

It's a dialogue. Not a tasklist (1)

91degrees (207121) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260246)

While it's nice if the customer knows exactly what they want, the only people who can really do this well are usually software engineers. A lot of the time, working out specs takes me as long as writing the software.

People really really don't understand software. It's a form of magic to them. You need to find out what the inputs and outputs are, what the behaviour should be in specific cases, and gradually refine a spec from that.

This sort of problem has caused a lot of expensive IT white elephants. Some of the more successful companies seem to have an intermediary to operate as a translation layer between the developers and the customers. Or to put it into non programmer terminology, to translate the requirements into geek.

A lesson learnt (-1, Flamebait)

nagora (177841) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260248)

"Head of Sales" translates to "IQ of 40, fantastic liar". Never ask sales anything. Sales is there to be told things; they have no ability, talent or insight. If they did then they'd be actually doing something instead of selling the results of other people's skills and talent.


Re:A lesson learnt (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260352)

"Head of Sales" translates to "IQ of 40, fantastic liar". Never ask sales anything.

Its hard when you don't have enough scale to do things properly. Small is OK. You can work on your own, specify it code it and sell it. Big is good. You can have a pipeline from customer requirements to specification to development to integration and validation. But in the middle is a zone where steps get compressed and people have to improvise. I have been there and its not good.

Re:A lesson learnt (1)

KillerBob (217953) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261038)

You're an idiot. Different skillset doesn't mean that somebody is necessarily stupid. Being able to sell the product that you're making is a very important skill... it's what actually puts food in your stomach. Somebody in sales may not be able to write code, but then, how good are you at dealing with the customers? Most of the engineers I know have really shitty social skills, and their sale rate would be a lot less than somebody who specializes in the task.... You might have the satisfaction of saying that you never had to deal with a salesman who didn't grok what you're actually capable of with the code, but at what cost?

If you have a communication problem with sales and it's causing unrealistic expectations and project goals, then the problem is in part your fault: you're not communicating with them effectively enough to pass the message that something's not possible. Personally, I've never had any problems dealing with sales: most of them get pissy when you say "no. that's impossible." but understand when you say "no, that would be extremely difficult, here's why. it's possible, but not within our current timetable."

Re:A lesson learnt (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18261788)

You know, for a salesman, there were remarkably few spelling errors in there. And I'm pretty sure you didn't write in crayon. You must be the manager of the sales department!

Re:A lesson learnt (1)

TheLink (130905) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261502)

It doesn't matter whether a saleperson has an IQ of 40 or likes wearing polka dot everything. If the sales targets are exceeded and the money is pouring in[1], anything short of significantly criminal is usually forgiven by management.

It is actually much easier to measure what Sales does, and if a salesperson doesn't meet targets, well it's usually bye bye time. Sometimes it's not even their fault - it could be they are made to sell a crap product (produced by crappy developers ;) ).

In contrast sysadmins could be reading slashdot all day AND that could be a sign of them doing their job properly - nothing goes down, and anything that has problems doesn't fail immediately warnings get sent in advance, and hardware/software fixes are scheduled.

[1] The salesperson is selling to people who actually pay. There's a very significant and important difference between people ordering your stuff, taking "delivery", saying they will pay, vs them actually paying.

Use a project model - step out of your dev role. (1)

el_jake (22335) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260272)

Start getting the head manager to define a business case. Then with that define a vision for the project in cooperation with all participants. Scope your vision with the help from the input from the users.
Make sure you have involvement from management, which is critical for success.

Define all roles: Who is the "customer" and/or stakeholder, who will test your software for you (you can't do that yourself wi) who will be responsible for managing requirements and who will develop.

You actually already have the step to iterate trough steps for a solid projectplan.
Make af mockup / prototype and show it to the project members (users managers etc.) And iterate until you have a working specificatio

If you don't follow these important steps, you are about to be part of the high statistics of doomed software project without a clear scope and stakeholder involvement.

Want a nice introduction to OO Design & Analys (1)

Tanuki64 (989726) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260282)

Try this one: []
Fairly simple, fun to read and far more useful than it appears at first sight.

Build a prototype (2, Informative)

Lonewolf666 (259450) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260302)

In my experience, very few users are capable of creating a high-quality spec out of thin air. But when they get to play with a prototype, they will usually find out what they really wanted but are missing in the prototype ;-)

Be prepared to go through a few iterations, AND you might have to say "no" at some point because once the prototype - feedback - prototype cycle is started, requests for new features will keep pouring in.

If the above fails (some users will say they dislike the program but cannot tell you what they would like instead), your project is probably doomed. I've seen that happen before.

Re:Build a prototype (1)

Tanuki64 (989726) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260368)

But when you really build a prototype, don't build a good one. Make the part you are interested in nice and everything else really ugly. Stupids usually cannot distinguish between a prototype and the real deal.

Re:Build a prototype (1)

CaraCalla (219718) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260416)

You don't even need a full, working prototype. Build mock-ups. Sit down with your prespective users and watch them try using your mock-ups. Understand what they are going to do with your product, is it really software they need? Understand what the guy who pays for the project wants. Return of investment?

You really need to start thinking more like a designer, than a code-monkey. If you like being the code-monkey and if you like coding/engineering to specs, you should probably find yourself another job. Go for a really big company, with design process, and all.

Should you stay with your current job, you should think about redefining your role. From what you write its unlikely you will ever get something remotly similar to specs from the sales people.

Re:Build a prototype (1)

Lonewolf666 (259450) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260658)

In theory, my current company has design process (much reworked over the last year). It is followed in a rather perfunctory way so far, but I see some improvements creeping in. Also, the people writing the "design inputs" are gaining in experience and might eventually belong to the very few people who can write decent specs.
There are other reasons to maybe switch jobs, but I will not do it over the lack of design process as it seems to get better :-)

Re:Build a prototype (1)

computational super (740265) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261158)

What you all seem to have forgotten is that his boss has already given him a hard deadline for the delivery of the project, and that deadline is next Tuesday. He didn't say that in the summary. He didn't have to.

Re:Build a prototype (1)

oni (41625) | more than 7 years ago | (#18262100)

you might have to say "no" at some point

what I find far more useful than saying no is going through the whole process for any change. I go to a meeting and someone says, "oh, can you make do this extra thing?" And I say sure. Then I add it to the spec, call the new spec version 2.0, add a week to the timeline, and send the whole thing to them to sign.

At some people, they step back and realize that they have asked for four years worth of development and they stop doing that.

Now, after the product is delivered, I give some small leeway for changes or additions. It's my option. But when they keep asking for stuff, I eventually just work up a whole new spec and send it to them to sign, along with a statement that makes it clear how much this is going to cost. At that point, they say, "oh this isn't free? well then we don't want it."

What's funny is, if you've ever built a house, you know that builders don't put up with this crap. If you tell a builder you want tan-colored bricks, and then later change your mind and say you want red, the builder will laugh at you. If you decide you want french doors, the builder will happily charge you for that. Nobody would expect a change like that to be free.

You want accurate specs? Write them! (1)

arb (452787) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260356)

If you want "accurate" specifications, write them yourself. Interview the users, find out what they think they want, what they actually do and then determine what they actually need. Then you write up a draft specification, present it to them and get their feedback.

Developing specifications is often harder than writing the code. You need to engage in a dialogue with your users to really elicit the requirements for the systems. Requirements gathering and analysis are tasks that shouldn't be left to the users, especially computer-illiterate ones, you need to do the work to create the specifications.

You boss is??? (1)

simm1701 (835424) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260372)

Your direct report is to the sales manager and you are a programmer?

Unless you are contracting on a very attractive rate then personally I'd be looking for something else.

You are going to be in a position where you will get all the blame when things go wrong, be given riduclous deadlines with the assumption that just by pressuring you harder they can get better software faster, no assistance from your manager, vague and contradictory statements of requirements from your users and since they won't be earning comission while they sit down with you for you to slowly guide them through stating what they actually need they will probably resist doing it.

Oh and while you get all the blame, you probably won't get any of the credit.

Frankly there is no way I would want to be in that position as an employee - if I'm working as an employee I either want to be the technical/project manager or working under a competant one, with the authority to get the resources needed and the sign offs in advance.

Of course if I am contracting on a daily rate then as long as they are offering enough I'd put up with most things and do my best to deliver something useful though I would expect it to be an uphill battle.

Re:You boss is??? (1)

Tanuki64 (989726) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260426)

Could not agree more. Just have quit my job because of that. First 'reporting' to an idiot sales manager, which did not understand the concept of 'priority' or anything else, then when the project was almost finished they 'gave' me because of the problems a 'project manager' with absolutely no experience and who could not distinguish between C and LISP even if you shoved him a textbook up his ....
The payment was ok, but there is only so much someone should have to tolerate.

Re:You boss is??? (1)

Jellybob (597204) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260488)

Agreed - get out of this situation now. I work as a web developer for an design agency, and the projects that go wrong are almost always the ones where our client contact is in sales.

The worst is a multi-lingual site providing an online product catalogue. The site itself works, but getting translations is a nightmare. For example I was once given an Italian translation for the site, where the only reference point as to which words are translated is the odd German word, an =, and then a long list of Italian phrases.

The sad thing is I'd sent them a spreadsheet (the common language of sales) containing lots of blank spaces to fill in, clearly they just didn't like the idea of that, but they were still furious when we pointed out we need it in the right format to be able to work it. A year later, we're still going back and forth with them.

Haha.. welcome to the real world :) (2, Informative)

Johnno74 (252399) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260382)

This is typical, get used to it - or get a job where this stuff is left to specialists, business analysts.

Although I beleive you should go through the pain of requirements gathering at least once, it will make you a better developer.

I reccommend workshops. Get some users (and preferably also a manager or team leader who can give a different perspective) in a quiet room with a whiteboard for two or three hours at a time, and get them to walk you through the process. Draw diagrams, get them to explain things. Getting what they actually want out of them can be like pulling teeth. They will assume you understand their problems... assume nothing.

Make sure you do a thourough job, and get them to sign off on the requirements documentation you come up with in the end. If you don't and then end up building something that doesn't meet their needs then its difficult and expensive to change, and you will get the blame.

Re:Haha.. welcome to the real world :) (1)

QuantumG (50515) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260438)

You read my mind.

User stories (4, Informative)

dwerg (58450) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260420)

We've found that writing User Stories [] together with the 'client' is the only sensible way to gather requirements. Make sure you develop in short iterations, that way people can change their mind about the software and you don't loose a lot of time.

Do their job (1)

chris_sawtell (10326) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260440)

Do their jobs for a while to find out what is actually needed as opposed to what they think they want. Sales staff people usually have little idea about what's possible.

Mock-up a few screens and talk with your temporary coworkers to see if they think what you suggest would be useful.

Avoid the bosses, they usually have little idea about the finer details of what their staff actually do.

Maybe try a Scrum/Agile approach?? (2, Informative)

ivano (584883) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260444)

Scrum/Agile approach might be what you need since the feedback cycles force your client (the product owner) to think about what you misunderstood and what the product should become.

I am still surprised that people actually believe that you can have a specification written before even a line of code of written. No one is that smart and thoughtful. You need to break down what needs to be into big chunks and get your product owner to prioritize. What I like about Scrum is that it brings all the shit that usually happens at the end of a product cycle to the front of the product cycle. It forces the product owner to think about what they really need and what they expect (i.e. all the discussions about what the definition of "done" is). The hardest thing about Scrum for developers is for them to underachieve in deliverables. We've been spending all our boom period saying yes to everything without thinking about the consequences.

So my advice, whether or not you want to use Scrum, is to have tight feedback loops. Plan weekly demos (Scrum prefers monthly) of what you have done given the specs you've received. If there are disagreements you can then ask what they had in mind instead (which leads nicely to a discussion about what they perceive "done" means).

But all good methodologies have one thing in common: the product owner needs to work fucken hard too. It can't just be "here you go, I'll see you in 3 months time." Pretty much all methodologies fail when the product owner can't see why they need to work so hard ("prioritize my list of tasks?", "we need to free up these resources?", "can't the project manager do this?" etc etc) my 2 cents worth

Re:Maybe try a Scrum/Agile approach?? (1)

garo5 (895321) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261494)

Mod parent up!

Agile methods is the way to go. Thight feedback loops, short iterations and all the normal agile stuff ensures that your client gets what he really needs :)

  - Garo

User interaction (1)

Sobrique (543255) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260500)

Requirements and specifications have been a challenge to developers (software and system alike) since the first '1' met the first '0'.

First off, is the question of who needs to produce the spec. The answer, sadly, is 'you' - if you're developing it, you need to produce a 'final spec' within the context of what you're able to produce.

However that's not the whole story by any means. You're also correct in saying you can't really make decisions on what stuff should do, and how and why. That's the really hard part. It requires a collective effort, between you and your users.

Unfortunately most of your users are also going to be wanting things that 'just work' so you'll possibly need to arrange with various managers that you _need_ your time, and theirs to get an accurate specification and requirements together.

Now, most will co-operate. You'll be able to talk to your users, and get them to take you through the aforementioned word document with sticky lables, and ask exactly what they mean.

Remember - your users don't understand 'technospeak'. Even simple stuff like what kind of button - they may not appreciate the difference between a radio button, and a drop down list.

Unfortunately, if you take away what they said they wanted, and do it, you'll be wrong. Which is why you need to draw up a 'spec document'. It's dull and long winded I'm afraid, but not nearly so bad as having to write and rewrite the thing you're working on, because the communications between you and your users isn't as effective as it could be.

Ask them to explain it. If there's something that exists already, arrange to watch them doing it, or better yet, use it yourself for a day or two. Draw up your document with what you 'think' they mean, in as clear a manner as possible. And then ask them to look at it, and feed back on correctness or amendments.

You can't do a spec without their input, but at the end of the day it's you that needs to do the spec - this is both because most end users are not IT savvy enough to put together something that you can use to code from, and because that way you have some control over nearly impossible features you sometimes get asked for.

Oh, and get manager 'buy in' on you doing these things. If you need to speak to the users for a long time to get it right, don't just assume they'll be able to put whatever their 'real' job is on hold whilst they do. At best, that annoys them, at worst you'll get told they 'don't have time' and you'll be stuck at a dead end.

Users Guide (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18260512)

Have the end user organization be responsible for the User's Guide. In THE Guide, they show all the screen mock ups, with details as to how each element works, including calculations. Warn them that Accounting uses a special kind of math that only Accountants are taught and ask for a copy of Quickbooks to validate your calculations for specific scenarios that the users create.

Unfortunately, Use Cases and other UML techniques are lost on most users. I've been in many, many arguments about "that isn't what a meant" with users. Stick to your guns - "that is what I heard" and please show me where you told use differently "in writing."

If could be that you are in a no win situation. Update your resume, there are better jobs available.

Face it. You'll never get decent requirements (2, Insightful)

johnjaydk (584895) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260514)

It's a fact of life. Deal with it.

IMHO the way to deal with it is to accept it and make it part of your process. Since you're talking about in-house development and small to medium sized projects I'll recommend an agile, itterative method. Make a small incremantal release every other week and get your requirements from the user feed-back.

At the end of the day, users are unable to express what they what they want. They only knows that they have a problem situation and that they want a piece of software that makes all their problems go away.

Don't ask them, tell them. (1)

idries (174087) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260586)

I find that customers like this are far better at telling you want they don't want, rather than what they do want. This can be very unhelpful as it can lead to your not knowing that what you're making is incorrect until it's actually finished.

The best approach is for you to spec out the system as best you can yourself, using what little input you do have (perhaps including some glaring errors on purpose ;) This spec will almost certainly be totally unacceptable, but you should then ask the customer to approve it.

Generally you'll get a whole lot of input about what's wrong with this system that you 'almost' built. Hopefully you can then work from that.

Of course, depending on just how unreasonable they really are they might get rid of you just because your spec was so wrong ;)

Do you need a complete spec upfront? (1)

StrawberryFrog (67065) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260668)

Some degree of education of the users may be in order, in your case. You need to understand their language and they need to understand yours.

but in many (possibly most) environments, this idea that a large system can be specified entirely upfront [] is myth. Business priorities change, problem areas are uncovered, understanding of what the system needs to do is improved (on both the programmer and user side). You may well be in such a fluid a poorly-specified situation.

Waterfall methodologies [] are usually broken. Try an agile [] approach such as scrum instead.

Story Based Development and Agile (2, Informative)

JavaSavant (579820) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260760)

I've found in the domain I work in (medicine) that story-driven projects tends to work pretty well, both in the way that estimation can be achieved and the degree of cohesiveness with which the "specs" or stories come together.

1. Identify each potential user of the piece of software;
2. Use a sample size of that group (e.g. an auto mechanic, auto body specialist, etc.) or proxies for those users, and given the direction of the project (workshop management tool, per se), solicit stories for development. A story should be short and describe a measurable unit of work from the users perspective (e.g. As a mechanic, I must be able to find a wrench in my toolbox.) Define any constraints (The mechanic may not search through the toolboxes of other mechanics) and acceptance tests the user can refer to to see that the story is complete (Any known wrench in my toolbox should be retrievable).

This approach allows you to avoid the technology and focus on the true business requirements. From this process, you can then size each story, scope the project based on features desired or a given deadline, and then things proceed fairly naturally. This has worked very well for me with Agile and working with small iterations so the users can see the manifestation of the ideas that produced the stories, and provide feedback so that you can add additional stories, remove ones that are no longer valid, and above all else - demonstrate progress.

Some good books on the subject:

User Stories Applied by Mike Cohn []
Agile Estimating and Planning by Mike Cohn []

Single author (no, he's not a friend), but both books that have been fantastic for me in terms of taking a fairly unmanaged project group and making it a much less squeaky wheel within my department.

Requirements Solicitation (2, Interesting)

s31523 (926314) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260764)

Your problem is not unique. I attend an Extreme Programming workshop near where I live and a guy by the name of Richard Sheridan came to do a presentation on his companies technique called High Tech Anthropology [] . It was a great presentation and it is something you might try. Basically, you camp out in the users "Den" and observe them, taking notes and trying to understand how they work, what buttons they push, which user interfaces frustrate them, which things they like, etc. You then take this back and use it to publish your requirements specs. Some XP enthusiasts talk about bringing the customer in and having them work with them team, but Richard Sheridan makes a great point, that this can sometime lead to the users becoming more like engineers rather than the other way around (like the book The Inmates Are Running The Asylum). []

Re:Requirements Solicitation (1)

KillerBob (217953) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260924)

Bah. My mod points expired. That's a very interesting idea... one I wish more programmers would follow up on.

Re:Requirements Solicitation (2, Interesting)

s31523 (926314) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261156)

I deployed this strategy and it worked quite well. I was developing requirements for a UI on a flight system for the function of flight planning. I traveled a lot with our company plane and road "shotgun" a lot. I started bringing my notepad and jotting down what the pilot was doing with respect to flight planning. I also made several notes on the most common buttons and scenarios based upon what Air Traffic Control was telling the pilot. I flew in good weather, bad weather, heavy traffic, and light traffic. After about one or two months I went back to our spec and said, this is all wrong. The widgets here and here are "cool" from a programmers perspective but the pilots will be annoyed by this. I also made several suggestions to the radio team because one of the most common tasks the pilot did was change communication frequencies for radio navaids and ATC operators. I got a lot of flac for my suggestions, to the tune of mind your own UI, this is what the customer was shown and this is what they are going to get.

Anyway, my point is, it can work, and probably for more applications than you would initially think. It might just take a little, I hate to say it, "out of the box" thinking.

Is their such a thing? (1)

NinjaTariq (1034260) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260834)

Full and Accurate specification, i don't think it can be full and accurate, in my experience it either has everything in it but it is not what the user wants or it has what the user wants but not everything is in it. Should create some programming law about that.

Don't discount the users opinions, but it is a good software designers job to ask questions and offer suggestions to get around the users weird ideas. But observe them, if you understand the process they are trying to do then you can offer alternatives which might help them, and make their lives easier... They will love you for it, then curse the programmers who can't work to your perfect software.

you're being lazy (1)

oohshiny (998054) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260850)

How do I convey to the users that, in order to develop the software they want, I need detailed, accurate specs?

It's your task as a developer to get the specs you need and to communicate with users in a way that they can understand. Furthermore, it's never as simple as simply requesting specs from them; usually, you have to build prototypes, collect detailed feedback, and do many iterations of that. Throwing away most of your work over and over again because it doesn't do what users want is part of the job.

I'd say that 90% of software development is figuring out what needs to be done--getting the specs. So, do your job.

Specs in my job (1)

nevali (942731) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260886)

The way I have to work is that I produce a spec from client meetings and discussions, which then gets sent off for approval. The client knows the the approvals process is important, because anything that deviates from the spec (when it's down to them getting it wrong, not us) will cost them extra.

We value the spec because it's what we work to, the client values the spec because it's their bottom line. As a result, we work together to ensure the spec is right before we start.

Re:Specs in my job (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18261012)

And this makes all the sense in the world in such a scenario as it sounds different then one developing in house. In house development OTOH can be pretty harrowing as well depending on the nature of your bosses or those that you are writing the code for. I've had amazing luck in certain settings getting the jist of what was needed and understanding how things worked. However, there have been others where it was like pulling teeth.

A recent modification to an in house application was a perfect example of how an initial interpretation of the needs presented to me ended up being way off. And even after having "the client" (if you will) come to see the work on 2 seperate occassions, it changed dramatically two days before it was due.

While it's ultimately going to be up to you figure out how to work in a given setting, it still pays to get as much knowledge about how the system works in order to come to a good understanding of what a person is after when they say "I need X, Y, and Z".


Organisation sounds interesting (1)

Bearhouse (1034238) | more than 7 years ago | (#18260980)

You are a programmer / app developer, who reports to a Sales Manager, and have to write an Accounting app? But the users can't explain what they do? Easy - look for another job. More seriously, plenty of good advice has been already given. My 2c. 1. Map out the process flow wih the users. NOT what they THINK happens, but what really DOES. Also at this time collect key information such as volumes, number of users... 2. Determine how it could be improved, even without some kind of IT support. 3. Then, map out how a system could help (your job here is to make users aware of possibilites & constraints) Keep it as SIMPLE as possible. Go for the minimum functionality required to do the job. 4. Prototype your work & data flow, then you can work out your DB structure, core logic and I/O. 5. Storyboard it, with dummy screens & reports (suggest you do not waste time writing any code yet). 6. Once everybody has signed off, you can get to work. Keep the users involved regularly, (once per week). Keep asking &checking "is this OK"? But avoid scope & function creep. Finally, dont forget to select tools & architectures that make it easy to add function later, & for easy end-user reporting. The ones you select will depend on your experience & environment, of course...

Direct interaction with actual users (1)

theonetruekeebler (60888) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261056)

Meetings are bad, m'kay? E-mail exchanges headed "I need the specifications for the app" are even worse.

What you need to do is interact, one-on-one, with (a) the people putting information in, and (b) the people taking information out. If it's the same people, so much the better. But don't go into a stuffy room with a whiteboard -- not yet. Find key users (not managers!) and start by asking them two simple questions: (1) What do you do all day? (2) Can you show me? Every time you see something, discuss it with them until you understand it well, then write it down, right then right there. Ask them what's tedious. Ask them what's important and why. Ask them what happens if a particular step is omitted.

Take all this back to your own desk and start doing mockups. Take these back to the users for round two, complete with observations like "I noticed that you spend a lot of time matching the numbers on this sheet of paper to the numbers on this other one. It looks like we could merge them together right here." Be prepared to have your design ripped to shreds, but have

Failing that, call your grandma on the phone and tell her that the users are writing "terrorist accounting software." The CIA, who is tapping your phone, will abduct them and fly them to one of those countries Amnesty International is always talking about, where a Haliburton sub-contractor will gather requirements for you. Six weeks later a New York Times reporter will discover the users wandering a dusty third-world street. The reporter will piece together the whole story into a five-part series that eventually wins the Pulitzer Prize. Part three of the series will be all the sordid details of the software, obtained from an anonymous whistle-blower at the Justice Department. The following spring a book called The Best Reporting of 2007 will be available in paperback, peaking at #237 on Amazon. Buy the book along with Karl Weigers's excellent Software Requirements, Second Edition [] so that you'll qualify for Super Savers Free Shipping. Using the two together you'll be on your way to award-winning software, but after the awards ceremony, don't accept offers of free rides in unmarked vans, even if they say they have a Wii console in there.

There are two types of Software Developer (1)

mrphewitt (961304) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261126)

Type 1 : insists that the user provide them with specifications for their system. They sit waiting for this document and when it eventually arrives they ignore it and the users and write something that doesn't meet the requirements anyway. Eventually these software developers either get put in a corner and ignored or sacked. They usually moan that users are a pain.

Type 2 : they discuss the requirements with the users and draw up a spec themselves. In constant dialog with the users they convert the requirements into code that implements a system that approximates to what is required. Its never perfect but it does the job. These software developers get respect from their user community and get promotion. These software developers while finding users a challenge to deal with, actually like helping them.

My advice is to do what your boss suggests and write the spec yourself and talk to the users.

When I interview software developers I have some major turn offs. The first is developers who complain that users are a pain and those that complain that the system failed because there was no spec or it was badly written. As an employer you need software developers who are pro-active and talk to their user community. Ones who wait passively for users to make up their mind are not worth hiring.

End users, rubber light bulbs, and bare hoses (1)

whitroth (9367) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261170)

1) FIRST: DO NOT INTERVIEW MANAGERS. Interview end users. I can't remember all the times I've seen software that was spec'd by managers who allegedly knew it all, and the end users did everything they could to not use it, or get around it, because it was so hostile, and did *not* work they way that they needed it to.

2) Sit them down, one by one, in a chair, and bring out the rubber light bulbs, and bare hoses, and beat them around the head and shoulders until you find out what it is they actually need as a result, *not* how it should be done. They used to teach one design method called HIPO charts: get what comes in, and what they need to come out, from them. *YOU* are the software professional; how you get from a to b is *your* job.

Lest you think I exaggerate in 2), there was a time, at one job, I had a chemist come in and ask me to convert the (dBase) files he had on a disk to ASCII, so that he could massage the data to create a report. I brought them up in dBase, then beat him about the head and shoulders, until he admitted what it was he was trying to produce. Then I asked him how long it would take, if I converted it, and he told me two or three days. I looked at him, and asked if he'd like the same report in two or three *hours*. The tables were perfect. All I had to do was create the query, and format the output.

So, remember, you get the rules, but *you* have to figure out how to get from here to there.


the specification didn't say i needed to define a (1)

djmagee (165242) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261348)

yea, nothing new here, the other replies seem to have summed up every way i know of dealing with this problem, but i will say, be thankful you never received such mock-up input screens via fax machine, that can be extremely painful.

Not going to happen (1)

Viking Coder (102287) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261418)

"How do I convey to the users that, in order to develop the software they want, I need detailed, accurate specs?"

You're absolutely right that it would be a lot easier for you to do it right the first time, if you were handed detailed specs.

But very, very few companies are willing to pay the expense of getting the specs so correct that developers will build it right the first time.

So, what do you do? You iterate. A lot. You try to identify the hard parts, and try to get them as clear as you can. If your users could describe the behavior they wanted exactly, they would just code it.

That's just what a software engineer does - turns desired behavior into a specification so clear that a moron could do it. The computer is supposed to be the moron, not you. Your users are going to give you specifications that are not as clear as you would like, and you are supposed to turn them into specifications that are much more clear (i.e. source code.) That is literally your "value add," and it's why you have a job.

Never give users a choice. (1)

Jester998 (156179) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261654)

Never give users a choice. They invariable choose the wrong one.

No degree of SE (1)

mgblst (80109) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261720)

Let me guess, you never did a degree, or took any Software Engineering classes. Only programming.

Working out the specs is one of the hardest processes you will have to face.

Meetings, meetings and more meetings with the customer (the person who you are designing the app for), asking loads of questions.

Interesting spec writing experience (1)

RPGonAS400 (956583) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261758)

I started a new job in June 1998. After I was there a bit I was told that the software that scheduled ALL production was going to hit a brick wall soon because it was written in "Business Basic" by a former employee and would stop working correctly 70 weeks before Y2K.

My first exposure to the rewrite of this code was in a large meeting where all the bigwigs were present for a presentation by a consultant who rewrote the PC based software into an AS/400 based system like the rest of our software. After the presentation, the scheduler, who was the main user of the software, cut down the consultant personally and told him his software was crap! Soon after this, I was brought in to be a mediator between the scheduler and the consultant. They hated each other so much that they didn't even meet together anymore. All communication went through me. They didn't even refer to the other person by name, rather using eupemisms like "your friend".

Here is the kick - the consultant told me when he started on this, he sat with the scheduler for 2 hours and then the scheduler got all huffy and said "I don't have time for this!!! Just write something and if we don't like it we can change it!"

This was SO different from the job I had prior to that where most users were extremely computer literate and helpful with writing specs. They considered the IT department to be a competetive advantage and not just a necessary evil.

Get a magic button! (1)

RPGonAS400 (956583) | more than 7 years ago | (#18261846)

Once we were in a conference call defining the brainchild of a user who had just come from another company. When we were a few hours into getting the definition of the needs, he blurts out, "Why does this take so long? At my last job we just pushed a button and it was done!"

For many years the IT department would always suggest getting one of the magic buttons to the delight of all.

Move fast, keep the modules small (1)

plopez (54068) | more than 7 years ago | (#18262022)

Why? If it takes you more than a few months capture requirements for design the business rules will change. You really, really need to have respect for and make the best use possible of the people in 'the trenches'. Don't rely on managers or analysts, they often don't know how work *really* gets done. If there is more than one site, interview people at *all* sites. Different sites often have different needs or business processes.

Small modules allow 'proto-typing' and feedback. This is a good way to discover hidden business rules.

If a legacy system exists, reverse engineer it and see what works and what doesn't. In fact, if you reverse engineer the legacy system and find it works well *do not* throw it away. Instead try to find a way to enhance it. Old does not mean useless, it may just need a better UI.

Be humble, because you are ignorant.

knowledge acquisition (1)

israel (28011) | more than 7 years ago | (#18262076)

Depending on the functionality you are trying to implement, this can be a hard problem. This has been addressed seriously in the AI and expert systems arena, where attempting to reproduce processes performed by an expert in some domain or endeavor can be very challenging.

A number of techniques have been developed to address this problem of acquiring the proper knowledge of a domain expert. These include things like watching people do the task while thinking out loud and analyzing their actions, as well as structured and less structured interview techniques.

Your problem may not be as detailed or complex as an expert systems implementation, but the issue of acqquiring good requirements is universal, and if you can't get it specified at requirements time, then you need to get it interactively from people that understand the problem.

Look at the literature in the area of "Knowledge Acquisition Techniques" for more information.
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