Wednesday, October 2, 2013

On Abstractions in Requirements

We, as a software developers, are used to work with abstractions and to strive to work with abstractions rather than with specific implementation details. We always try to build the abstraction layers on top of complicated rules and design our systems so that the details are hidden at low levels. The system, looking from some distance, is built from nice generic bricks.

But we're much less used to have our abstractions in line what our business requirements are and how the stakeholders look at it. We're often thinking about abstractions only on technical, source code level. But ideally, if something is really a well-designed abstraction, it should serve everyone equally well.

Know the abstractions the customers use

When building the software for a particular group of users, they probably have some ideas how things should work and how things relate to each other. Ask your customers not only for the details you need to have to complete your concrete implementation, but also ensure you know the bigger picture. If your customers define some rules, before implementing it, get the knowledge what these rules are about and what they represent. These rules probably result from some customers' business concept and it will appear in multiple requirements or ideas over and over again. Knowing the concept upfront will save some time finding duplicated rules and/or inventing the abstractions on your own. If not identified early enough, introducing it to the codebase later will probably mean conflicts with existing, made up abstractions.

Agree with customers on the abstractions

Don't introduce high-level abstraction for things that sounds similiar if your customers don't use those things together. When the product evolves, this kind of abstraction will probably end up as a gordian knot tying two things that are meant to go different ways. Eventually you'll have to remove the abstraction on the way (which may not be easy) or some dirty hacks will grow around it.

Talk with everyone about naming

Naming is one of the most difficult thing in programming, right? So why not rely on our customers. They probably know better how to name the things they are familiar with. Discuss the synonyms and agree on the naming before introducing the abstraction to the codebase. It may be a good idea to have a glossary of terms the customers use and how it's represented in the codebase so that different developers (but also managers, technical writers, customer support, etc. - essentially all the stakeholders) don't use another synonym for the same thing. This will avoid confusion and misunderstanding. Moreover, mapping of "documents" to "articles" through "news stories" will be weird, anyway.

Don't use details when there's an abstraction agreed

Whoever create the requirements for your project, they should be aware you know the concepts they use, so that they will use it in the communication, for everyone's convenience. Subsequent requirements should not repeat the definition of the abstraction in detail, but rely on the fact you already know it. Otherwise it will probably end up inconsistent or implemented locally, separately from the previously introduced abstractions. When the existing concept's definition turns out to be an obstacle and it needs to be clarified with details later in the project's development, it probably means that either there is no real abstraction there or the abstraction is not defined or understood correctly by all parties.

Make sure you have proper number of well understood abstractions

Abstractions should be - well - abstract enough. It means that it should be easy to grasp it and explain it to a new team member or new customer representative. If it's not - it's probably not a high-level abstraction. There are also practical limits how many high-level abstractions make sense in the project. If there are too many, so that they can't be learned easily, either the project is overcomplicated or - again - these are not really high-level abstractions.

This all may sound obvious, but I've recently experienced it isn't. In our project, there was a high-level decision made that we need to have our content categorized. The idea of the categories went through several layers of business analysts and subject-matter experts and before it get to the development team, it became fuzzy and the general concept flittered away. We get nothing about categories, but a bunch of seemingly unrelated yet not trivial requirements to "move things around here and there". We implemented it as so rather thoughlessly. And some time later there was a business decision that things should work together as they are related. But that "related" thing doesn't exist for us at all - we have several own concepts of "relations" instead, grown on the developers' need for abstractions. And now we need to go few big steps back to align. Oops!

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