The 3 Secrets To Creating Good Product Requirements

by drjim on August 24, 2008

The 3 secrets to creating good product requirements

The 3 secrets to creating good product requirements

Requirements – don’t we all have a love ’em / hate ’em relationship with them? You can have the best product team in the world, an amazing entrepreneurial spirit, and yet if you screw up the first step in a product launch, the requirements, then you’re basically dead in the water. I’ll probably take some hits for this next statement: you can also screw up by spending too much time trying to build the perfect requirements for your product. Great – damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. What’s a hard working product manager to do?

Researchers at the University of Florida have discovered that as much as 80% of the rework that has to be done on a development product has its roots in defects in the product’s requirements. What this means is that no matter what development methodology your team is planning on using, one of the largest opportunities for an IT organization to improve the quality of the products that it creates is to find a way to capture requirements correctly.

About 10 years ago I had the opportunity to work with a colleague whom I’ll call Neil. Neil was an excellent product manager and his heart was in the right place – he really wanted to do a good job. On the last product that he had worked on the requirements were all screwed up. This time around he swore that things would be better. He not only interviewed his customers as to what they were looking for, it would be more accurate to say that he grilled them. He wrote, rewrote, and rewrote again the product requirements. He also held big meetings where everyone came together and nodded that the requirements were exactly what they were looking for. (You know how this story turns out!) Neil’s product was a complete flop. The customer took one look at it and said that they weren’t going to use it because it didn’t fit with how they did their work. Argh! Neil had done everything classically correctly – what went wrong?

Actually, Neil had screwed up in three major ways that we’ll now talk about so that the same fate doesn’t befall you. Here are the three secrets that every Product Manager needs to know when it’s time to collect product requirements:

  1. The Customer Is Never Right: One of Neil’s biggest errors was listening to his customer. What he should have done was to listen to their business processes. Ultimately the role of every product is to solve a problem. If you just listen to the customer’s description of the problem, then you may end up creating a solution that doesn’t fit in with how they do their work. Instead, take a long, hard look at where the problem fits into their business processes and you just might discover that the correct solution looks nothing like what they described to you.
  2. Good Enough Is Good Enough: You have to draw the line somewhere and stop the requirements gathering process. Neil couldn’t do this – he was on a Don Quixote quest to create the perfect all encompassing product requirements. Instead of thinking of requirements as being written on stone, try thinking about them as having as many layers as an onion. In order to get thing started, you need to have the first complete layer of requirements. You can then refine, refine, and refine some more while the project has already started. Perfection is never attainable and you’ll waste a lot of time trying to get there.
  3. Dedication Is Required: All too often product requirements are not “owned” by anyone after they have been created. What this means is that the orphan requirements quickly become almost useless because of product development decisions that get made on an almost daily basis. However, if someone on the product team is given the responsibility of keeping the requirements up-to-date and ensuring that they are a living, breathing document, then they will have value both at the start and the finish of the project.

There you go, 3 simple secrets that can transform how a product manager collects, uses, and manages product requirements. Now if only keeping the product team aligned was so easy…!

So tell me – how have you gone about collecting product requirements? Are your product’s requirements living requirements or should they have been buried a long time ago? When do you draw the line and stop collecting requirements and start developing the product? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Raj Rajamani September 16, 2008 at 4:10 pm

Interesting post – it can be extremely painful to refine requirements because no two customers ask for the same functionality. We have developed some processes to evaluate the priority of various requirements (see here – http://allthingsstartup.blogspot.com/2008_03_01_archive.html), but at the end of the day, a lot of the decisions are still subjective. At the end of the day, your success really depends on the support you get from your manager and exec management, which is really proportional to the trust they have in you.

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