Visualization as a cure for ambiguous requirements

Despite the fact that I am a huge advocate for Lean techniques, rapid iteration based on user testing and reduced reliance on written specifications, the reality of many development teams is that written requirements are an important part of vital business processes.

There are plenty of reasons for this – historical, institutional,  regulatory etc.  Ultimately, switching to minimal documentation solutions is not possible for a lot of organizations.  Written formal requirements are alive and well, and they’re not going anywhere.

But even if you face obstacles that prevent a switch to pure “Lean UX”, every organization can use visualization to improve processes, speed development, reduce rework and improve user experience.

One technique we’ve seen from our customers is to use visualization to supplement written requirements.  I was reading a paper about ambiguity in requirements engineering, which really drove home the benefits of visualization that I’ve personally seen, and which I hear from ProtoShare customers all the time.  Requirements are written in natural language because everyone can understand them, at least in theory.  But executives, business analysts, product developers, end users, user experience professionals, designers, developers and qa engineers can all bring different contexts to their reading of a written requirement.  Different stakeholders understand written requirements differently, and with varying degrees of specificity.

Visualization reduces requirements ambiguity by translating a written requirement into a more universal language.  The first pass at understanding a written or language based requirement should almost always be a visualization to confirm: this is what I think you’re describing, is it correct?  If all parties can agree that a written requirement combined with a visualization is more-or-less what they have in mind, you’ve eliminated the most basic type of misunderstanding with minimal effort and no rework.

Visualization can do much more.  For example, you can user test even simple visualizations to make sure that your requirements are complete, that users understand them, and that they will ultimately solve the underlying problem that you’re working on.  Visualizations can also help to uncover overlooked requirements, spur new thinking, encourage experimentation and innovation and more, but step one is to use visualization to make sure that everyone understands a written requirement in the same way.

You can use ProtoShare to include visualizations in your written requirements in different ways.  Every page, design, topic and annotation in ProtoShare has a unique URL, which you can paste into a written requirement.  We also have plug-ins for JIRA and Confluence that you can use to embed lightweight prototypes directly into your JIRA and Confluence pages.  Finally, we have a Google Drive plug-in that lets you build light-weight prototypes that can be shared through your Google Drive account.

Whatever method you choose, and whatever organizational constraints you face, any company can use these techniques to start improving development processes, reducing rework and delivering better results.

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