Scrum and non-functional requirements

01 August 2012

Peter Hilton

by Peter Hilton

Scrum doesn’t help you with non-functional requirements, but that doesn’t mean you’re supposed to ignore them

When you work on a Scrum project, you tend to focus on implementing the next set of features. After all, that’s pretty much the whole point of the Sprint Backlog. Features aren’t everything, though. When do you work on fixing bugs and usability issues? When do you improve performance and scalability?

Reliability, security, usability, performance, scalability…

You can get into trouble if you neglect bugs and don’t think about security requirements. At a certain point, an application can become so buggy that the development team gives up on the idea of being able to fix all of the known bugs, and users give up on the idea of the software ever being trustworthy or reliable. Usability is similar: it is an inherent quality of all of a system’s interfaces (not just the user-interface) and not a set of features that you can just add to an existing system later on.

Performance and scalability requirements are somewhat different. Although performance is a pervasive quality of a system, good performance relies on repeatedly tuning specific performance bottlenecks, instead of trying to make everything ‘fast’ first time (also known as premature optimisation*). Scalability requirements, meanwhile, tend to depend on business requirements that evolve over time, such as an on-line service’s number of users, and have high costs that are best delayed.

Functional vs non-functional requirements

Software development involves two kinds of requirements: functional requirements, which are about features like being able to send e-mail, and non-functional requirements, which include those qualities such as reliability, usability, performance and security. Wikipedia has a long list of non-functional requirements , which all contribute to overall software quality.

On a Scrum project, there is a serious risk that non-functional requirements will be neglected, resulting in poor-quality software. It is natural for the Product Owner to think about progress in terms of user stories and features, and to hold the development team responsible for the ‘quality’ of the resulting software.

Prioritising Scrum project requirements

Scrum gives you an effective way to prioritise, specify and implement functional requirements, in the form of user stories, but doesn’t particularly help with the non-functional requirements. Agile software development includes the principle that ‘working software is the primary measure of progress’, but assumes that your team has enough experience and common sense to decide what ‘working’ means.

The solution, in general, is to bake non-functional requirements into a Scrum project by including them in the Definition of Done, and any associated review process. This means that non-functional requirements for things like reliability and usability can be incorporated into every user story, and therefore all development work.

This approach also makes it possible to discuss the cost of implementing non-functional requirements with business stakeholders. Adding conditions to the Definition of Done increases the time required to implement each user story, as well as the time required to review or test that it is ‘Done’. Non-functional requirements are not free.

Alternatively, each sprint can budget a fixed amount of non-story time that team members spend on technical tasks, such as bug fixing and performance improvements. This comes to the same thing, and is a just the choice of whether user stories include all work.

Playing catch-up

In practice, some non-functional requirements will still be addressed by user-stories that make the software catch up with where it should be. This is appropriate for improving performance, for example, in the form of specific performance improvements. This can still be continuous work: many applications would benefit from one performance improvement each sprint, and ‘performance improvements’ in every release.

  • a.k.a. The Root of all Evil