IT looks to halt user, developer clashes

As users persist in their gripes that applications built by corporate developers don't meet their needs, IT managers are increasingly turning to tools and processes that can ease requirements definition and management efforts.

Several large companies and government agencies said that in recent months they have bought or built tools to automate paper-based or verbal requirements-definition methods. Some businesses are also planning to integrate the requirements management process with the rest of the application development life cycle to improve communication between users and developers.

The urgency to improve requirements management processes has prompted some companies to create new positions within IT departments to oversee such efforts.

For example, about six months ago, Ed Barkley was named to the new post of process improvement leader in the IT shop of a large health care company he asked not be named.

Barkley's new role: to implement changes that increase end-user satisfaction with new applications developed in-house. His first order of business: to overhaul the development operation's requirements management process.

"In many cases, we are not delivering to the customers what they wanted," said Barkley, noting that developers often wrongly assume that they understand the needs of their users.

"You see how the current requirements are being developed, [and] you discover that the requirements aren't being understood or documented correctly, if at all," by IT developers, said Barkley, who also heads the Kansas City Rational Users Group. "That is the beginning of the problem. [IT] people assume what the customer wants."

Turning to templates

To help bolster the process at the health care company, IT developers created requirements management templates to provide users with a formal process for listing what they need in new applications.

The company began using the templates this month, Barkley said.

The company hopes use of the templates can first halt the practice of users passing their needs on to developers either verbally or in notes with "large paragraphs of rambling," according to Barkley. The new process also calls for users to approve work on an application at multiple stages of development, he added.

Once the system is in place for an undetermined period, Barkley said, IT will start auditing the process to determine whether user needs are being met and whether users are satisfied with the resulting applications.

If the audit determines that the new process is accepted by users and developers, Barkley said, the health care firm plans to link the templates to IBM Rational's RequisitePro requirements management tool, which it has used intermittently in the past, Barkley said. After that, the company will link the integrated requirements management process with the Rational testing tools it uses, he said.

Brian Kilcourse, chief strategist at Retail Systems Alert Group, a U.S.-based IT research firm, said the inability to meet user needs at many large companies has offset recent major advances in software development technologies -- such as integrated development environments and ever-improving code-generation tools.

"We've been in commercial computing for almost 50 years, and we've automated all kinds of tasks," Kilcourse said. "But requirements management is the one thing we haven't gotten to in any meaningful way."

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