Requirements Aren't Just for Software Anymore
by Sharon Flemings

Most people having experience with selecting software to solve a business problem are familiar with the "normal" first step in the acquisition process (well, after identifying the funding source....) - the need to develop "requirements". Requirements outline the functions software must perform, performance considerations, security features and so forth. But... did it ever occur to you that requirements aren't just for software projects?

All IT organizations, and more and more business people are familiar with the concept of "eliciting requirements". Unfortunately, when the term "requirement" is mentioned, all sorts of images are conjured up - mostly negative. People immediately reflect on their past experiences with this task - many thinking it torture, with grueling multi-hour sessions pouring over long lists of details, or weeks and weeks of meetings to review and approve each item.

While software requirements are certainly important to selecting and implementing software, it can also be useful to define requirements in other situations - scenarios outside the technology arena. You may never have thought about the necessity to define "requirements" for tasks like grocery shopping (isn't that what a grocery list really is?) or selecting an item of clothing. However, being sensitive to your "requirements" for a particular item provides you a framework for identifying choices and making decisions. Let me use a few examples:

Interior Design
A couple of years ago, I decided to remodel my kitchen and baths. (Yes, I did them all at the same time - not something I would recommend in hindsight. Cooking every meal on the barbeque for 3 weeks got a little old...) There were a couple of problems I had in my current spaces which I wanted to resolve (my "business problems") - my broom closet was too short for the brooms and mops, and there was no laundry hamper space.

I worked with a designer to lay out the new cabinets and appliances for each of the rooms. I selected the cabinet face design I wanted, and the finish. I measured and re-measured to make sure everything would fit, and the cabinets were ordered. Finally, the day arrived for the installation. The contractor team came in and in two days had all the cabinets installed. I was grateful since I could start putting things away again.

It was while I was putting away the brooms that I realized that I had made a serious mistake. I hadn't really defined my "requirements"; consequently, I didn't solve my original problem with the brooms - my new closet was even shorter than the old closet!

Selecting a Pet
A number of years ago, we decided to add a dog to our family. We had very good luck in the past with "pound puppies", so decided to go to the local shelter and see what kind of dog we could find. After our previous dog acquisition (Mom: "We need a small dog that is full grown". Husband and kids: "But Mom, he was so cute and he was the only one not barking. Besides, it didn't look like his feet were too big for him" - a golden retriever puppy....), I decided some "requirements" were in order:

     - must be small, full grown
     - must not shed
     - must be female
     - must be housebroken

So, my daughter and I went to the shelter. As we were leaving (dog-less), we noticed a dog which hadn't been there when we arrived. She was small, full grown, housebroken, and with long black fur. We spent some time with her, and my daughter convinced me to take her home. It was fairly easy to make the decision - she met most of the requirements (other than the shedding). Having the requirements detailed ahead of time allowed me to make a decision, and understand the implications of disregarding any of my requirements. It also provided a way to measure the results of the decision (spending more time vacuuming).

Selecting a Spouse or Roommate
Okay, so maybe this one seems a little extreme, but think about it. If you have detailed out what you want and don't want in a potential spouse or roommate, wouldn't that make it easier to make a decision once all the emotion is involved? I haven't tested this application out yet, but I am working on it with my kids. Of course, their first reaction was "Oh mom.....". But really, think about it.....

Your Turn
In any application or situation, thinking about what you really need and/or want is the real first step in making a choice. Requirements give you a framework in which to make decisions and evaluate trade-offs, and they provide a mechanism to measure results. Give it a try!

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