7 July 2010

Who wants to write this requirements document?

Al Pacino is a great actor. In 1992, he played a blind colonel in the movie Scent of a Woman. I won't go into the plot details, namely because I've never seen the whole movie, but there is one scene that I have seen. Al's character takes a Ferrari for a drive, which isn't a big deal until you remember, the character is blind.

So what does that have to do with business analysis? Consider this article that popped into my news reader this morning about a new, nonvisual interface for driving a car. Now, stop for a moment and imagine yourself on the university research team who came up with the idea. How do you go about eliciting requirements for such a project?

It occurs to me that most of the work done by business analysts in some way involves sight. Sure, we occasionally toss in a requirement for an audible queue or some tactile response, but when was the last time any of us, outside of a few disciplines, worked primarily on a nonvisual project? Even if you're working on data interfaces or ETL, you still likely drew up an ERD and made something that was primarily a function into a visual representation.

So how would an ERD sound or feel? What if we made all of our screen mockups using elevation relief mapping techniques so that blind people could get an idea of what our screens looked like? How would these thoughts change the way we work?

Its good to think about these questions, even if they do seem a bit silly, if for no other reason than they allow us yet another viewpoint of the work we do. Consider that relief map idea... if we're making mockups to help draw requirements from our stakeholders, what needs to be the focal point of our diagrams? The submit button? Specific data entry elements? Or is it the way the entire page leads our eye to one area that the user needs to see? If we consider the high points on the map to be the important information and it is surrounded by low points, does this make sense in drawing the user's attention to that spot? Maybe, maybe not, but if we consider all elements of the page as 'flat' because they're on a screen, we're probably not helping the user to understand what elements are more important.

So what about you? What are some 'crazy' viewpoints you've brought into your project lately?


  1. As I recall from Pysch 101 - taken in the 60s so my recollection may not be exact - human beings think in pictures and images rather than words. How the psychologists figured that out I do not know. Words, both verbal and written, are our attempts to describe those pictures in our heads. Using diagrams, drawings, models, etc. gets us even closer to the pictures in our heads. However, we also do not think statically. Our pictorial thoughts are in association with other images in our head, and tend to be more dynamic, that is moving. To accommodate this, we develop prototypes that show the data in conjunction with the interface in conjunction with the process of using both. Now our model gets really close to what we see in our heads. Working with information systems, however, the picture we have in our heads - at least in the users' heads - is somewhat foggy or vague since it deals with abstract and future reality, and really doesn't clear up until we see the prototype in action.
    Now here's the kicker. The sufficiency bias says that we will be satisfied with something that satisfies our specific needs rather than to hold out for something better. This means that what we are looking at now becomes the picture of what we want in our heads. Later, we might see something else that changes the picture and expect the delivered system to have that something else. And round we go.
    Isn't inexact science fun?

  2. Excellent, Steve. It reminds me that I've had an idea to make a post about language and how multiple people can read the exact same document and have two wildly different takes on it. Guess I should get to work and write that one. :-D