Discovering Requirements. Ian Alexander and Ljerka Beus-Dukic, John Wiley, 2009.

This book provides valuable and accessible techniques for anyone who is involved in the process of eliciting requirements. The authors have avoided organising the book in a procedural way; instead they have structured it using the intersection of nine “requirements elements” and five “discovery contexts”.  Each chapter focuses on how to gather more information about one specific requirements element within each of the discovery contexts.

Chapter 6 for example is about a requirements element called “Qualities and Constraints”. Here the chapter focuses on techniques for discovering the non-functional requirements (qualities) and compliance issues (constraints) in a variety of discovery contexts. Contexts in this case can mean the  individual stakeholders, relevant groups and so on. The strength of this organisation is the freedom it gives the reader to move around within the book (possibly a new non-functional requirements type) while at the same time providing the reader with an overall connective framework.

The combination of sociological, philosophical and technological themes provides a much needed emphasis that requirements are not just about software solutions. References to Peter Checkland’s work, among others, reminds readers that “system” does not necessarily mean “computer system” and that effective requirements discovery means looking at the wider world.
I am pleased to see techniques for goal modelling and structuring are covered in sufficient detail to enable practitioners unfamiliar with the notation to put it to good use.

Priorities is another requirements element for which the authors provide a number of alternative thinking approaches. I like the idea of thinking about “input priorities” as the priority assigned by stakeholders and “output priorities” as the priority assigned from the perspective of availability of a practical solution. Another interesting topic related to prioritisation is the inclusion of a statistical method called principle components analysis (PCA). A worked example illustrates how this technique can be used to provide input to (not replace) human decision-making about the inevitable trade-offs between requirements. At the other end of the formality scale a nursery rhyme (this year, next year, sometime,...) is used to help to do triage and assign priorities to requirements.

From a practical point of view the authors have provided substantial worked examples of techniques to aid requirements discoverers in their tasks. Examples are drawn from fields as diverse as air traffic control, tram routing, video games and restaurant management. I would also have liked to see one complete example but recognise that space constraints impose a trade-off. 

A theme that runs through the book is the need to communicate with diverse stakeholders who all have their own view of the world. The authors’ wise advice is that “there is no point trying to force requirements language on people. When you’re interviewing a stakeholder, don’t start talking about ‘non-functional goals’ or “quality requirements’. Ask plain questions about what people want to achieve, and what performance they are seeking”.

This book is written in a way that you would enjoy reading it from cover to cover. It is also an excellent reference book and, no matter what techniques you are using, I am willing to bet that you will find additional insights and approaches to improve your requirements work. Keep this book on the shelf by your desk, you will find yourself referencing it often.

Suzanne Robertson
Chamonix March 22, 2009