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The Case for Starting a Design Revolution

October 12, 2011

Requirements are the devil. No enterprise design initiative wastes more time, more effort, more money — while squandering goodwill — than the quest for requirements. I’ve lost track of the number of software development teams and innovation groups I’ve worked with who invested weeks eliciting, gathering, and prioritizing customer requirements — then carefully built and demo-ed a prototype — only to hear, “Well, I know that’s what we asked for but, now that we’ve seen it, it’s not what we really want.”

This design pathology repeats itself virtually every day around the world by otherwise diligent and sincere innovators. The reason for this dysfunction is painfully simple. “Requirements” are the wrong unit of analysis for crafting innovative design. More often than not, requirements are little more than textual abstractions that simultaneously misconstrue and mismanage customer needs. They confuse and conceal as much as they reveal. The words translate poorly into real-world action. The results can destructively disappoint. Relying on requirements to guide world-class design is like using BMI to select world-class basketball talent; there’s just enough correlation to be truly dangerous. It’s got to stop.

“Use cases” represent a safe, subversively inexpensive and accessible way out of the requirements trap. Where requirements are inherently inefficient, use cases enable effective focus. They’ve proven remarkably successful for software developers and customer-centric industrial designers alike. They transformed design team morale and purpose in remarkably short time spans. They work best, I’ve observed, where project leaders seem more concerned about what their customers and clients actually do instead of what they say.

As the term implies, use cases describe a sequence of events leading to an outcome desired by the user (or the user’s boss). The emphasis is on articulating how to achieve or accomplish a specific goal or task. Use cases capture essential interactions that help determine the value of the innovation or system. The organizing principle underlying use cases radically differs from those defining requirements. Requirements revolve around attributes the system should or must have; use cases clarify the outcomes-oriented interactions that matter most. Describing what systems should do is a fundamentally different design challenge than articulating how they should deliver value from use. It’s astonishing how difficult so many firms find this distinction.

But organizations like Apple, Google, and Amazon fully understand and internalize the use case design ethos and methodology. Use cases are integral elements of the increasingly popular Agile and XP software development methodologies. Even industrial designers favoring ethnographic observation and other behavior-based design approaches frequently reframe their client’s design brief away from comprehensive lists of requirements in favor of a compendium of key use cases. They find illuminating “desired use” generates more actionable insight than refining “functional requirements.”

Whether you’re overseeing or managing an innovation initiative or a new systems upgrade, don’t ask for the Top 20 Requirements. Get the Top 20 Use Cases instead. Don’t ask your customers, clients or prospects to describe what they need. Get them to articulate the uses that matter most to them. Never let intrapreneurs or aspiring innovators dazzle you with promised features and functionality. Insist they map out the fifteen mission critical use cases that will define the innovation’s brand value in the marketplace. The most important future requirements should matter less that the most compelling future use cases.

If you really want to foment a design revolution in your organization, have the wit and courage to ban requirements from every systems, process and innovation proposal made to top management. Put use cases front and center in your value creation efforts. Insist your partners and suppliers do so, as well. To truly transform your innovation culture and process, make use cases your single most important requirement.

Michael SchrageMichael Schrage

Michael Schrage, a research fellow at MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business, is the author of Serious Play and the forthcoming Getting Beyond Ideas.

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