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Prioritizing Requirements

Collecting ideas for possible requirements is not hard. Almost everyone who regularly comes in contact with a product—whether they are inside the organization or outside—will have at least one idea for a feature that could be added. The tricky part is sorting out what features should be included in the scope for your project.

It’s actually fairly rare that you see a simple one-to-one correlation between your strategic objectives and your requirements. Sometimes one requirement can be applied toward multiple strategic objectives. Similarly, one objective will often be associated with several different requirements.

Because the scope is built upon the strategy, we’ll need to evaluate possible requirements based on whether they fulfill our strategic goals (both product objectives and user needs). In addition to those two considerations, defining the scope adds a third: How feasible will it be to actually make this stuff?

Some features can’t be implemented because they’re technically impossible—for example, there’s just no way to allow users to smell products over the Web yet, no matter how badly they might want that ability. Other features (particularly in the case of content) aren’t feasible because they would demand more resources—human or financial—than we have at our disposal. In other cases, it’s just a matter of time: The feature would take three months to implement, but we have an executive requirement to launch in two.

In the case of time constraints, you can push features out to a later release or project milestone. For resource constraints, technological or organizational changes can sometimes—but, importantly, not always—reduce the resource burden, enabling a feature to be implemented. (However, impossible things will remain impossible. Sorry.)

Few features exist in a vacuum. Even content features on a Web site rely on the features around them to inform the user on how best to use the content provided. This inevitably leads to conflicts between features. Some features will require trade-offs with others in order to produce a coherent, consistent whole. For example, users may want a one-step order submission process—but the tangle of legacy databases the site uses can’t accommodate all the data at once. Is it preferable to go with a multiple-step process, or should you rework the database system? It depends on your strategic objectives.

Keep an eye out for feature suggestions that indicate possible shifts in strategy that weren’t apparent during the development of the vision document. Any feature suggestion not in line with the project strategy is, by definition, out of scope. But if a suggested feature that falls outside the scope doesn’t fit any of the types of constraints above and still sounds like a good idea, you may want to re-examine some of your strategic objectives. If you find yourself revisiting many aspects of your strategy, however, you’ve probably jumped into defining requirements too soon.

If your strategy or vision document identifies a clear hierarchy of priorities among your strategic objectives, these priorities should be the primary factors in determining the priority of suggested features. Sometimes, however, the relative importance of two different strategic objectives isn’t clear. In these cases, whether features end up in the project scope all too often comes down to corporate politics.

When stakeholders talk about strategy, they usually start out with feature ideas, and then have to be coaxed back to the underlying strategic factors. Because stakeholders often have trouble separating features from strategy, certain features will often have champions. Thus the requirements definition process becomes a matter of negotiation between motivated stakeholders.

Managing this negotiation process can be difficult. The best approach to resolving a conflict between stakeholders is to appeal to the defined strategy. Focus on strategic goals, not proposed means of accomplishing them. If you can assure a stakeholder with her heart set on a particular feature that the strategic goal the feature is intended to fulfill can be addressed in some other way, she won’t feel the needs of her constituents are being neglected. Admittedly, this is often easier said than done. Demonstrating empathy with the needs of stakeholders is essential to resolving feature conflicts. Who says tech workers don’t need people skills?

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