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Requirements definition getting more visual

Visualization software can make requirements easier to establish and aid developers in explaining features, but some analysts say the technology isn't quite there yet and needs some more improvements before it can become a standard.

Today, if you were designing a car or an airplane, you wouldn't sit down and use a drafting board—you'd use a computer-aided design (CAD) tool. But that's not the case for software application design in most organizations, said Mitch Bishop, chief marketing officer at iRise, a provider of enterprise visualization software for business applications in El Segundo, Calif. "Look at how we design complex business software—it's 30-year-old technology. We elicit requirements, we write them down, we generate a giant functional spec, and go through painful stakeholder review sessions."

iRise is one vendor in the growing market of visualization/simulation/modeling tools for requirements definition that is changing how requirements are elicited, defined and accepted. "We empower the business analyst for the first time with a product that mimics other industries and their use of CAD," Bishop said. "What visualization is all about is bringing the business analyst into the modern world."

The One driver of requirements visualization is that "the project failure rate is still really high," Gerush said, "and we're looking for ways to improve that." Second, she said, there is an "increased recognition that we haven't emphasized the importance of requirements and how costly it is to get requirements wrong, and it drives us to say, 'What are we doing wrong?' So many organizations are still using Word and creating text-heavy requirements."

The influence of agile methodology is also having an impact, she said, even for non-agile shops. Agile emphasizes "the use of more modeling, more pictures, and the recognition that a variety of stakeholders [are involved] for requirements, and they have different preferences. So we're looking for new ways to represent requirements in ways that are most consumable."

"The reason agile exists is because of the failure of waterfall around requirements and communication," Bishop said. "If the first time the business gets to interact with an application is when it's coded and tested, that's expensive. In a lot of ways agile was invented to fix the fundamental flaws with waterfall. Visualization actually makes waterfall work the way it's supposed to; everyone can see early in process."

Another big driver is application modernization, said David Nyland, CEO of Blueprint Software Systems Inc., a requirements definition and visualization vendor in Toronto. When modernizing or upgrading big applications like SAP or Oracle, Nyland said organizations are asking themselves what should they do differently? The answer, he said, is "Let's get requirements right and visually validated. For an SAP console, for example, there could be seven countries collaborating." Visualization, he said, helps avoid some of the massive costs of not getting requirements right.

For Fairport, N.Y.-based Paetech, which personalizes business communications for medium and large businesses, the ability to do simulations "was a huge selling point" to Blueprint Requirements Center, according to Jennifer Ignizio, systems analyst. "To be able to provide that to stakeholders was huge. A lot of times when they talk with you about what they're looking for [in an application], it's very different from how we may interpret it." Showing stakeholders a simulation "confirms we're on the same page."

Also, Blueprint Requirements Center accommodates a variety of requirements authoring metaphors. "In the past we had spreadsheets, diagrams, prototypes, text, and there wasn't a lot of organization in terms of keeping everything together," she said. "We didn't have the ability to do mockups along with textural requirements, and there was no way to simulate how the software would work until we got to the development phase. The reason we went to Blueprint is it had an area for textural requirements, use cases, mockups, running simulations, and the way it tied in with HP Quality Center. It was a huge win for us."

Paetec offers a suite of IP, voice, data, and Internet services, as well as enterprise communications management software, network security solutions, CPE, and managed services. The company has been using Blueprint for about two years, Ignizio said. The primary users are the software development team, "from analysts and PMs writing requirements; to engineers reviewing and writing comments and working off of it; and testers."

Forrester's Gerush divides the requirements definition market into four categories, but emphasized that the "definition tools are still evolving, so I expect this picture to change over time." Blueprint Requirements Center is categorized as a requirements definition platform, which Gerush describes as having a centralized repository for team collaboration, and offering such functionality as modeling, simulations, requirements authoring, test case creation, and lightweight requirements management. Along with Blueprint, she includes eDev inteGREAT Requirements Development Platform from eDev Technologies, and IBM Rational Requirements Composer.

In the category of team and enterprise tools focused on simulations, prototypes, and mockups Gerush includes: iRise Enterprise Edition, Micro Focus TeamDefine for CaliberRM and Serena Prototype Composer.

Standalone tools focused on simulations, prototypes, and mockups include: Axure RP, Balsamiq Mockups, iRise Professional Edition, Microsoft Visio, Microsoft Sketchflow as part of Expression Studio 3, Micro Focus TeamDefine and MockupScreens.

Finally, according to Gerush, Ravenflow products support requirements definition through process definition and validation.

These tools also cover a range of visual fidelity, she said, "from low fidelity, creating a wireframe, which is about placement of functionality and visual elements on the screen, to high fidelity, which shows exactly what the screen will look like and how the user will experience it. There are different perspectives on how high you want or need the fidelity to be. Micro Focus is advocating a pragmatic fidelity, getting just enough effort to create a pragmatic level of detail your stakeholders will understand."

As organizations become more familiar with these tools and how they can help them develop software, Gerush said, "they will have to figure out how much effort they want to spend developing these simulations, which aren't functioning software."

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