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Style vs. Substance

In the world of requirements, we often focus totally on the substance of our creations – either in documents, diagrams, or requirements tools. There’s no doubt that the substance is extremely important. After all, if you don’t have the right content in the requirements, you’re in for a ton of trouble.

The question is – if nobody can consume the information in your document, should you spend so much time making sure every detail is exactly right? The presentation of information in your requirements is, in many ways, just as important as the requirements themselves.

I think this is one of the reasons requirements management tools have big adoption issues is that they often miss out on this critical aspect of requirements documentation. Some tools provide reports or document generation, but they are usually less than pleasing to the eye.

I like to think of my requirements deliverables as projects within the project. Who is the audience? What do they want to do with the requirements? What do they need to get out of them? When looking at them in this light, you can think about the usability requirements for your requirements. As with software, these often get neglected when focusing totally on the ‘functionality’ of the requirements. When under a deadline, it can be especially hard to spend time thinking about these ‘soft’ requirements needs.

What can you do to have better ‘style’ in your requirements? There are tons of different techniques you can use to help make your requirements leap off of the screen. First of all, use of different fonts, font sizes, and colors in your requirements can help add emphasis and meaning to different sections. You might decide that all requirements are in Verdana, for example, while the body of the requirements is in Arial. This serves to emphasize what is a requirement vs. what isn’t a requirement.

You can also use images and icons to convey meaning in the context of the requirements. The concept of sparklines can add a lot of punch to your deliverables and help get the intended meaning across.

Which is more important, style of substance? They’re both important! Of course, style without substance will be totally ineffective, but substance without style can lead to different problems that are, in many ways, just as serious.

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