Requirements that clients don’t talk about: The elephant in the room

By Gordon Rugg

He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision,–he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath–

“‘The horror! The horror!’

This article is one in a series about the problem of identifying and clarifying client requirements, using the ongoing semi-humorous example of a client’s requirement for an image of an elephant. The previous episodes have looked at some bad ways of tackling the problem. This episode looks at methods for tackling difficult areas of requirements gathering, where people are for various reasons reluctant to talk about a particular topic. It also looks at the underlying reasons for that reluctance.

That takes us into some uncomfortable and morally ambiguous territory, which is why I’ve opened with a quote from Heart of Darkness. If you’re trying to fix real problems, then you need to know how to find out the realities, and that isn’t always fun.

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The observational techniques

By Gordon Rugg

Sometimes you can get the information you want via interviews and questionnaires. Often, though, you can’t.

For instance, if you want to know how long the average visitor spends on your website before leaving it, or what percentage of the population don’t have current car tax displayed in their car, or just how a skilled tennis player holds the racquet for a forehand, then interviews and questionnaires won’t get you very far.

In cases like the ones above, you’re trying to find out what people actually do, as opposed to what they say that they do.

There are various techniques that can be used for this. I’ve grouped them together under the label of “observational techniques”.

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