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Friday, September 28, 2012

Be careful when answering, "Both"

When I am working with someone to work through the requirements of a new system or project, I will often ask a series of questions that help shape my understanding of what the person wants.  Often these fall into a pattern where I ask a series of either/or questions, like this:

Do you want it optimized for security or ease of use?

Does this fit into a wholesale or retail delivery paradigm?

Will this be used by external customers or internal staff?

Is this intended to drive new revenues or decrease current costs?

In many ways this is like going to the ophthalmologist who has you look through lens A and then lens B, and then asks the question, "Which was better, A or B?"  Both of us are trying to bring the problem into focus.

The single most dreaded (by me) answer to these questions is: Both.

In some cases this answer really means, "I am not sure what I want."  Or, "I'm too busy to think about this."  Or, "I don't care."

This, obviously, does not help when gathering requirements.  And so it is a real barrier to scoping the project. Sometimes, of course, an answer of Both is a fine start to a longer answer.
We really do need both in this case.  We want to build a system for managing metadata that can be used by both the staff and external people equally easily.  We are changing our entire workflow so that either population can manage our metadata, and this is our new business practice.
That is a fine use of Both.  In fact, if the person gave a different answer, we might needlessly limit the usefulness of the system we build.

And another fine answer, just like we sometimes tell the ophthalmologist is I don't know.  There's nothing wrong with that answer.  However, just like with the ophthalmologist, when I hear this answer, I reach into my bag of lens, and try another pair to bring the issue into focus.

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