Have you ever asked someone a question, only to have him/her respond with, “Well, it depends…”? It can be extremely frustrating, especially when all you want is a simple, direct answer. For example, if I’m looking for directions to a restaurant and someone tells me that it depends on whether I want to take the most quick, the most direct, or the most scenic route, I probably don’t mind the clarifying question. If, on the other hand, that person just says, “It depends” and stops talking, then a very annoyed look will probably appear on my face.
But the answer to many questions DOES depend on additional information that the asker doesn’t provide. I may know that my car is low on gas, or that the dinner reservation is in 10 minutes, or that I just rented a convertible and want to drive around with the top down, any of which would allow someone to suggest an applicable route to dinner. But because those things are an integral part of my world that I don’t consciously consider when phrasing the question, they’re probably not on the tip of my tongue when I’m posing my question.
As a result, what often happens is that the person asking the question gets either a non-response (“It depends…”) or an inappropriate response given my specific (but unstated) objective. The answer is either annoying or just plain wrong for the situation — and in either case, the person who asked it probably thinks “That’s a completely useless answer!” Unfortunately, if you ask enough vague questions, people stop answering them, and if you answer enough questions inappropriately or with only “it depends,” people stop asking you for answers. Neither of those situations is good for someone in the requirements business!
In earlier posts, both Joyce and I extolled the virtues of context, and this is another great example of the importance of that kind of additional information. When you’re meeting with stakeholders to gather requirements, explain the context for your involvement with the project and the questions you’re asking. When you’re answering requirements questions, don’t just stop with “It depends” — tell them what it depends upon and what some possible answers are for each situation. You’ll build credibility with your team, establish a reputation as a reliable source of information, and (perhaps most importantly) not be the cause of that annoyed look on anyone’s face!