Client requirements: Are they really infinite and unknowable?

A tale of Dostoyevsky, deserts, Wile. E. Coyote and Road Runner

By Gordon Rugg

“We always imagine eternity as something beyond our conception, something vast, vast! But why must it be vast? Instead of all that, what if it’s one little room, like a bath house in the country, black and grimy and spiders in every corner, and that’s all eternity is? I sometimes fancy it like that.”

“Can it be you can imagine nothing juster and more comforting than that?” Raskolnikov cried, with a feeling of anguish.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

If you’ve ever had to deal with a demanding set of client requirements, and you were offered the alternative of spending eternity in a black, grimy spider-infested country bath house, then you’d probably hesitate about which choice to go for.

At one level, client requirements actually are infinite and unknowable. At another level, though, there’s a more positive message. Yes, the complete set of client requirements is ultimately infinite and unknowable, but that isn’t the real point. The real point is that you don’t need the complete set. You just need enough for the task in hand, and that’s a much more tractable problem.

This article is about ways of getting your head round the concepts involved.

They’re important concepts, because they have far-reaching implications for how we approach the whole issue of requirements and what people want, not just for product design, but also for bigger issues like architecture and what people really want out of life, and how to design the human world to meet those wants and needs. Fortunately, the concepts required are actually fairly straightforward, if you have the right tools for thought. The tools for thought that we’ll be using in this article are a desert highway and a large number of scattered boxes.

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