Traditionally, outlining requirements for software development projects involved words. Lots and lots of words. Variations over time included specification documents, use cases, and user stories to convey the essence of the problems customers wanted the software project to solve. These methods all have benefits, but they also come with limitations.

“The biggest problem is that language is inherently ambiguous,” said Craig Wolfe, Senior Business Analyst at TDK Technologies. “Everyone has attended meetings where people use the same words, but the next day we have different ideas about what exactly was agreed upon in the meeting.”

Analog Techniques

Visual techniques and activities can help bring greater clarity for all involved in projects. Analog visualization techniques can be simple, inexpensive and basic ways to awaken the right-brain and stimulate creative thinking.

Whiteboarding: The group technique of physically writing shared ideas on a white surface tends to reinforce the five different ways people learn (visually, aurally, kinesthetically or by activities, by writing, and logically).  One of the advantages of group whiteboard exercises is that any combination of words, pictures, sketching, and verbal emphasis can help develop areas of exploration more fully. The final product of the whiteboard exercise can be photographed and shared when the session is completed.

Sticky Notes: The multi-colored pieces of paper that can be easily moved from one surface to another thanks to reusable adhesive are very effective in all stages of the brainstorming process: Generating Ideas, Evaluating Ideas, and Selecting Ideas. It can be helpful for the team to visually see all available ideas, whether there is consensus or commonality, connections or outliers by using sticky notes on a wall – rather than lists on paper. In addition, the sticky notes can be easily moved around to further refine ideas as they emerge. One example of using this visual method in a problem-solving brainstorm session can be found here.

Story Mapping: This technique emerged from Agile software development, where user activities in priority order are arranged along a horizontal axis and the implementation activities are listed in descending order vertically. This method is helpful for high-level planning, showing all members of the team the flow of activities required to complete projects, and making decisions between must-have requirements and nice-to-have options. The Agile Alliance has more details.

Kanban Board: Sticky notes and a white board are also typically used in this visual technique that communicates status, progress and issues relating to projects.  Kanban is the Japanese word for “visual signal”. The concept emerged in the late 1940s when Toyota implemented it so production workers could visualize both their work and workflow. Users can see at a glance where the project is going and where issues may be lurking.  Additional background about Kanban Boards can be found here

“All of these techniques can be utilized to communicate a lot of information more easily than could be accomplished using written words alone,” Wolfe said.

Digital Techniques

Analog techniques work well for creating ideas and laying out the big picture of projects in a visceral manner, provided all the necessary team members participate. But they have drawbacks, because analog techniques take up physical space and require team members to be physically present to fully benefit from them. The results of the analog activity also must be documented in some fashion for future use.

There are technologies available that can be useful when team members are not in the same location but could still benefit from visual techniques to communicate project requirements. Classic project software programs have developed plugins that create digital boards to display information more visually than their traditional list-based systems. There is also a program called Stories On Board that integrates with various project management software systems to allow digital story mapping.

“That is especially great for working with clients. Not only do they get an overall visualization of the project, but they can really see the roadmap that is developing to achieve the project goals,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe says a hybrid approach is emerging, where analog methods are utilized to start the visualization process, with the result being placed into a digital tool for ongoing refinement and execution. Digital techniques are also improving with time, to include more interactivity that more closely resembles the physical activity of moving sticky notes around a white board.

User Experience Tools

Providing execution-level visual tools once the project has been defined can provide end-users with improved understanding and invite feedback more readily.

Flow diagrams provide more detailed visualization about how the proposed system and workflow are moving. Wolfe believes simple flow diagrams are almost essential at the feature level, to help users understand what the system will do, and the manner in which it will do it.

Site maps are helpful in web site design or web-based application projects to show how all the elements fit together. They also tend to provide a complete picture for the site, without focusing too heavily on specific features.

Low-fidelity wireframes begin to bring projects to life by showing what they may look like in a simple and functional manner. They provide good visual support for the function of the emerging project or application without getting bogged down by details about what the final form will look like.

Design comps are more detailed visual representations of the final project. Wolfe said comp, in this case, means that the visualization is more comprehensive in nature.

High fidelity designs are useful for the designers, but also for software developers. These more completely define the look and feel the user will experience.

Interactive prototypes permit users to experience how the project functions, including page-to-page and menu navigation. Wolfe said this method allows real users to get their hands on real software to get actionable feedback about what they like and what needs refinement.

Bringing a visual element to the software development process brings more clarity to projects, compared to using words alone. Visual communication and interaction help bring about understanding that reading alone cannot deliver. Visual techniques are certainly useful to analysts and UX experts. But Wolfe says virtually anyone in the software development process can benefit from using visual techniques to communicate more clearly and deliver projects that really solve customer problems.

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