Client requirements: The shape of the elephant, part 1

By Gordon Rugg

It’s a little-known fact that Dante’s Inferno contains a circle of Hell that’s reserved for people who come along when you’re wrestling with a horribly complex problem, make some utterly unhelpful suggestion, and then stroll off, convinced that they’ve just given you a profound insight that contains all the answers you need. For example, they tell you that your problem is like the five blind men trying to work out the shape of the elephant, which you already know, and then they leave without giving any practical ideas about how to actually solve the problem.

This article is about the shape of the elephant, applied to the very real problem of identifying and clarifying client requirements. It’s in two parts. Today’s article is humorous, and looks at some classic bad solutions to the problem of providing the client with the image of an elephant that they have asked for. The follow-up article will look at why those solutions are bad, and describe some better ways of finding good solutions.


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Tweet-sized thought for the day: Pattern matching, serial processing, politicians and word salad

Pattern matching is an easy way to check if a thing looks right. Serial processing is a hard way to check if it is right. A big difference.

There are two computational mechanisms for solving a problem, regardless of whether you’re a human or a computer. One of these mechanisms is parallel processing, where you carry out lots of tasks at the same time; this mechanism is very good for pattern matching, where you identify patterns (whether physical patterns, or underlying regularities in events, etc). The other mechanism is serial processing, where you do one task at a time; slow, but steady, and much better for catching errors in reasoning.

Humans are very good at pattern matching, which we find swift and easy, and very bad at serial processing, which most of us find slow and painful. So what? So this is why we appear to be an illogical species, and why demagogue politicians can get so far despite having policies that are little more than word salad.

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