It’s Time We Revisited Our NFRs: Let’s Add Sustainability and Diversity & Inclusion

Sticky notes with question marks written on them
Image Credit: © Anton — stock.adobe.com #230524608

As anyone who has ever worked with me will know, I’m somewhat of an advocate of Non-Functional Requirements (NFR) Analysis.  I’ve found that in some projects, sadly, the NFRs are left unexamined, with the Functional Requirements taking the lime-light.  This is understandable, after all it’s far easier to talk about what needs to change, and far harder to talk about the quality attributes and other non-functional elements of that same change.  Yet get the NFRs wrong, and you end up building a very shiny and expensive system that nobody actually uses.  If you are in the UK and have been to a Post Office recently you may have experienced the ‘self-service’ booths.  As Roland Hesz observed on Twitter, these are so complicated to use that they have a member of staff guiding people through the process….

For a whole variety of reasons, I’ve been thinking about NFRs a lot recently, and I came across three articles that really resonated with me, and made me think it’s about time we revisited the ‘standard lists’ of NFRs that we use.  In particular, I think there are two sets of categories that we ought to add. 

Sustainability

Back in May, Gerry McGovern (creator of the ‘top tasks’ approach) wrote a blog entitled ‘Digital Contributing to Climate Crisis’.  In this article, he argued that the way we create, consume and store data has an impact on carbon emissions.  In the old days, we might take 24 photos on a two week vacation. These days, we could easily take 240, and we’ll probably store them in ‘the cloud’.  More content and more usage equals more servers—more servers equal more power drawn.   Then, a few weeks later, I read Liz Keogh’s article ‘Off the Charts’, where she reflects on the severity of climate-change data, and suggests some actions we could take as individuals.  This made me think what could we do as a community of BAs to make a difference?  After all, we work at the heart of change.  What could we do to make a positive difference in the change that we facilitate? One way, I believe, would be to introduce environmental sustainability as a category of Non-Functional Requirement.  At the very least, it would act as a trigger for us to consider this in our projects.

Think about the last project you were on where there was a decision to either host the solution on-premise or utilise some kind of ‘cloud’ or ‘…as a service’ solution.  To what extent did sustainability come into the conversation?  What type of power are those ‘…as a service’ or cloud based services using? Solar? Coal? Nuclear?  Does it matter?  Or what about that process where paper forms will be shipped via an external courier every day between Plymouth and Newcastle—did anyone consider the environmental cost of doing that, or was it just the explicit financial cost?

Many organisations will publically state that they are taking action to be ‘carbon neutral’ and to use renewable energy.  But how meaningful is this statement if they have really just “outsourced” their coal and oil-burning to a data centre somewhere else in the world?  (It is, of course for each organisation to make a judgement as to whether they care about such things, and I am not intending to make a value-judgement here.  However as BAs we really ought to be pointing out where an organisation’s actions are not aligned with its values!)

Will this solve the problem? Absolutely not.  Might it help cultivate conversations at the right times? I hope so…

Diversity and Inclusion

Just a few weeks ago, I came across Callum Akehurst-Ryan’s article ‘How Diversity and Inclusion Can Improve Testing’. In this article, Callum gives some illuminating examples showing that having diversity in the team can mean that problems are spotted in testing that might otherwise go amiss. In his article, he highlights how the marital status of ‘Civil Partnership’ had been missed from an online form.  This, along with lots of ideas and inspiration I picked up from Dr J Harrison on Twitter lead me to think that we ought to have another category of NFR: Diversity and Inclusion.  This is a huge topic, and I will only begin to scratch the surface here.  Of course Diversity & Inclusion ought to be built into the fabric of everything we do, and having an explicit NFR category ensures it doesn’t get inadvertently missed or marginalised.

For me Diversity and Inclusion requires empathy and understanding.  Of course, if we are doing requirements and design right then we are going to spend time understanding our service users, customers and beneficiaries.  But how often do we question the ‘taken for granted norms’ that seem to have crept into the specification and design of services?  Just taking one example, there will be folks who don’t identify with or don’t feel comfortable using one of the ‘standard’ courtesy titles (Mr/Mrs/Miss/Ms/Dr Etc). After all, these can be read to imply gender, and for some even imply marital status (“Why is my gender and marital status important when I’m ordering a theatre ticket?! And what do I do if I don’t fit the cookie-cutter options?!”).

We could extend the list to make it more all-encompassing, we could allow free-format entries, or even better we could ask “why are we collecting this data at all?”.  In many cases, there’s probably no good reason for collecting it—cut it out and the process will be quicker for everyone and we’ve been more inclusive in the process too. (Be sure to check out Dr J’s article ‘Gender: Why Are You Asking About It?’ for a more in-depth examination of this topic). 

Of course, this is just one set of examples in what is a much, much, wider topic—one that I am certainly still learning about. There are whole other areas where this is equally important, and I use this specific example to illustrate where a simple discussion and a pro-active ‘challenge’ by a BA during the requirements and design phase can make a difference.  By having this on our radar, we can ensure we specify and design services that work better for all.

So, what do you think? Should we start re-visiting our dusty list of NFR categories? And should we add Environmental Sustainability and Diversity & Inclusion?


This article is kindly supported by the Building Business Capability Conference.  All opinions expressed are my own.

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Adrian Reed

Adrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

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davidjbeckham

Brilliant article once again Adrian! I often say that BAs are only as good as the questions they know they need to ask and this article demonstrates exactly how many questions we need to learn and add to our question bag. The world is a rapidly changing place and system behaviours are no longer the exclusive domain of capacity, availability, performance, disaster recovery etc. Your point about the environmental impacts of data hosting and storage is a great example of how things have moved on since I first encountered NFRs. Some of these topics move us out of the world of IT completely…… Maybe we now have a need for Business Culture Requirements or something similar?!? (Do I sense one of our ‘jam sessions’ on the horizon during the drinks reception at the upcoming BA Conference 2019??)

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