Monday, November 15, 2010

Humphrey's Requirements Uncertainty Principle

Watts S. Humphrey (July 4, 1927 - October 28, 2010) passed away over the last few weeks and as a memorial to him I thought I'd post an article about his Requirements Uncertainty Principle, which is a cornerstone of Agile's approach to defining system requirements.

Watts Humphrey contributed significant thought leadership in the software engineering process and one of the principles he states is requirements are inherently uncertain. To quote and excerpt from his book "A Discipline for Software Engineering":

"This creative design process is complicated by the generally poor status of most requirements descriptions. This is not because the users or the system's designers are incompetent but because of what I call the requirements uncertainty principle:

For a new software system, the requirements will not be completely known until after the users have used it.

The true role of design is thus to create a workable solution to an ill-defined problem. While there is no procedural way to address this task, it is important to establish a rigorous and explicit design process that can identify and help to resolve the requirements uncertainties as early in the developmental process as possible."

Back in 1995 when this book was written (2 years after the founding of Scrum), Humphrey recognized that the software engineering process was broken and that repeated attempts at having a requirements document comprehensively describe a proposed system was met with failure many more times than with success. We are 15 years removed from this publication and there are many development teams still searching for this fictitious Holy Grail!

As we all know, Agile addresses Humphrey's Requirements Uncertainty Principle by:
  1. Capturing what users' want in user stories
  2. At the time of development, collaborating orally and through whatever documentation is required to fully understand what is to be developed
  3. Designing and developing features to address the requirement(s)
  4. Then immediately thereafter providing what's been developed to the user(s) so the requirements can thus be fully known.
  5. Repeat
Why wait till the end of a project or many months after a feature has been developed to get feedback from our users. It is always most efficient to make the inevitable, yet unforeseen, changes to features immediately after they have been introduced.

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