Web Design & Development Process: Part 1 - Aggressive and Relentless Requirements Gathering
This is the first part in a series on how not to ruin your life on your next Drupal project. Sound extreme? Well, if you’ve ever suffered the crushing defeat of working your tail off on a lengthy project only to sit there at the end after launch feeling like you just came out of the opening night of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (ie: severely disappointed and a bit confused), then you know that it is indeed extreme. We spend a majority of our day at work and when it’s not rewarding or energy-giving, it’s a real drag.
So what is the formula? Well, a blog post isn’t going to solve all your problems - but - there are certainly key approaches that we have taken that have helped us avoid catastrophe time and time again. Translation? We’ve managed an extremely high customer satisfaction rate for over two decades. What’s been happening here seems to be working so we pay a lot of attention to what it is exactly that we are doing and assess why we think it’s working. If you want a high-level bird's-eye view, check out our process page. We are going to get a bit downer and dirtier here though.
Ultimately, we want you to go home to your family at the end of the day saying “GUESS WHAT I DID AT WORK TODAY EVERYONE!!” (like we do) instead of “Can we just order pizza and go to bed at 7?”.
We’ve identified 3 essential components to kicking a project off right, the first of which will be covered in this post. They are the following:
So let’s start with Aggressive and Invested Requirements Gathering. We spent a lot of time thinking about this and I realized it comes down to the adjectives. Everyone knows (mostly) about requirements gathering, but it’s a minefield of unasked questions, unanswered questions, misconceptions, forgetfulness, and chaos. The solution? Take ownership of this baby from the beginning and treat it like it’s your project - it’s your passion - and do what it takes to nail it down. Getting answers that make your life easier, despite your suspicions that the client is maybe not thinking it through, doesn’t help anyone. Take no shortcuts and care about everything.
“Take ownership of this baby from the beginning.”
Here are 3 specific goals:
Assess priorities (theirs and yours!)
Priorities are key because we can easily get hung up on things that ultimately aren’t that important. On the flip side, there are things that are tremendously important to one of the two parties, and hence, it must be important to both. So the client says I care most about X, then Y, then Z. In your head you’re thinking “Yikes, Z has a huge unknown element that I’d like to solve quickly to understand the implications.” So talk about it. Repeat their priorities back to them and state your own and find that happy middle ground where you can pursue the project in an efficient and effective way while also focusing on what matters. It sounds simple, but unspoken expectations or concerns are a plague in project management.
Determining constraints (time, money, features, personnel)
I still love the age-old project management triangle that says that for any given project, you can choose 1 of the 3 key priorities in a project: time, money or features. This means that you can’t simply dictate the budget and the schedule and also expect a very rigid set of requirements. The problem is that despite even stating this, there is a lot of pressure from the client to set the expectation on all three and that simply isn’t possible. So it’s critical early on to sort out what the real constraints are. Ok, you would like this to stay under $50k. Is that a hard cap or could you go over if you felt it was worth it? So you want this launched by January 1st. Is that more of a clean-sounding date or is this tied to a fiscal year, or some other real deadline? Ok, so you want features X, Y and Z. Which of those would be deal breakers to not have? This kind of questioning is very helpful because early on in the build phase, you can make intelligent decisions about how and when to collaborate with the client since you know the significance of obstacles or changes of directions that impact these things.
The last thing I’m throwing on top of this triangle is the concept of personnel. We’ve found that knowing who your stakeholders are, who your end users are, who your editors and admins are - early on - is critical. I’ve literally had meetings where we’re deep into requirements and then I meet the person who has veto power over everything and the thing goes sideways. We’ve learned as well that there is a repeating sales cycle when new stakeholders arrive because convincing the last three people doesn’t mean you’ve convinced the next three. I’ve also had times where a stakeholder makes some critical decisions, but then after talking to the people “on the ground”, I find that he was simply just wrong on some of the day-to-day operations. It’s good to talk to everyone, but also find out each person’s role in the big picture. Often times we’ve found ourselves advocating on behalf of lower level employees who often bring up important and practical issues that decision-makers are often overlooking. It’s a delicate balance, but if the system isn’t welcomed and adopted well by it’s primary users, the project will sink even if the ones writing the checks are getting what they think they want.
Reading between the lines
This is tied to the item above in a lot of ways, but stands on it’s own as an important point. When you’ve done this long enough, you learn that most of what is asked for by a potential client is not always really the point. Often there is a hidden goal or motivation that has led to the formation of a feature request. Even if that request perfectly solves the need, it’s still important to discover that need because it can affect the implementation and guide the specifics. For example, if a request is made to let users download an export of tracking data, but you dig and find out that actually they’re just using this tool to turnaround and upload it into a remote system and it’s a bit of a pain, maybe building a web service is better where their system can talk directly to ours and users can step out of the daily grind.
So in summary - gathering requirements the same way you date someone you’re thinking of marrying. Care about it and pursue it as if it’s the most important thing you’ve got going with an end goal of a lifetime of happiness.