Compared to What?

I just returned from my annual winter road trip. My trip included a visit to Chaco Canyon. I’d been warned about the bad roads. But I’ve been on some bad roads, and figured that with a four-wheel drive vehicle with plenty of clearance, we’d be ok.

As we made the turn down the unpaved road that covers the 20-miles from the highway to the archeological site, I looked at the road ahead of us: packed clay and gravel and wide enough for three cars.

I kept waiting for the road to deteriorate. It didn’t. The posted speed limit was 45 and it was easy going the whole way. Sure, there are a couple of places where the road needs to be re-graded, but the road into Chaco Canyon is a *good* road.

Let me tell you what a bad road is like: two wheel tracks with ruts and barely enough room to get the truck between the trees. On a bad road, you creep along in granny gear at 5 miles an hour (tops).

And what does this have to do with software? It’s a great example of the disconnect that happens when we make assumptions. In this case I made an assumption about the adjective “bad.”

We use adjectives to be more descriptive. But adjectives can be subjective, and then they get us in trouble:

Think about a time someone asked for a system that was fast, or easy-to-use or secure. Chances are that your definition is different from the next guy’s. Unless the person requesting and the person delivering calibrate their understanding of what “fast,” “easy to use” or “secure” means, there’s bound to be an expectation gap.

When you hear an adjective or adjective phrase without a comparison, ask questions to calibrate your understanding:

–Describe a system that is “easy to use.”

–How would you know something is “easy to use”?

–What would make this software “easy to use”?

When you’re doing the talking, be specific:

“The customer information screen needs to display in less than 1 second. That’s 1/3 faster than the current screen return of 1.5 seconds.”

“Our goal is to reduce the number of defects we ship by 25% compared to the number of known defects shipped in Release 2.1.4.”

You’re much more likely to see the result you want.