Translating Unknowns into Tangible Requirements

For me, the most exciting part of a project is the challenge of figuring out exactly what a client is asking for based on a very short brief provided in an introductory call.

This challenge is increased in my industry when you move from Dynamics 365 based projects to pure Power Platform projects, because you move away from a functionally built system, to a set of tools that enable the capability. Not only do we now have to qualify the tool, but we also need to qualify the business process at an earlier stage than we typically used to, as well as the full data model.

For example, a “helpdesk replacement tool” screams Dynamics 365 Customer Service, and consultants in the industry typically understand the core operational processes before they speak to a customer. On the Power Platform, however, no two ‘self-serve chatbot’ projects would ever be the same, and there’s no functional process that you can align to this.

So how do we quantify projects with so many unknowns when we need to fully design the data model, the user interface, and the functional process? One way to start is to look for three themes:

  • Trends
  • Assumptions
  • Caveats

The first consideration I make is whether there are any repeatable components for any given high level requirement.

Whilst this doesn’t necessarily give us the full requirement ready to build, it does give us an idea of the size of the scope in contrast to a solution that is easier to estimate. Let’s take the idea of implementing a chat bot for a client on their website.

As a website user, I want to be able to engage with a chatbot, so that I can easily find out store opening times and current stock levels.

Within the industry I work in, we know that a configurable Power Virtual Agent for Teams solution that only uses Entities is relatively straight forward, and doesn’t require code. The interface used to build the solution is entirely controlled by Microsoft, so we also have confidence that it works! Let’s now put our original requirement into context by using known unknowns:

  • We know that the client cannot deploy this through Teams, but we don’t necessarily know exactly how to deploy it through a website that we don’t control just yet.
  • We are not being asked to build their website and we don’t know what their data source is, but we do know that we can take advantage of data and automation services that we can control to make this easier, perhaps Microsoft Dataverse with some sort of movement of data via Power Automate?

We now have broken down the requirement into tangible considerations and we can justify risk and complexity based on what we do know and what we can control, so we should factor this in to our estimate right from the beginning.

As a website user, I want to be able to engage with a chatbot, so that I can easily find out store opening times and current stock levels.

Trends:

1. Power Virtual Agents for intelligent chatbot functionality.

2. Power Automate to drive dynamic data interactions between end user and data source.

3. Dataverse to assist with controlling data where necessary.

Assumptions

Next up, assumptions. We are often taught that making assumptions is a bad thing, and in most cases that is correct, but assumptions can be extremely powerful when defining a requirement if used correctly.

Taking our earlier example of a chatbot being deployed via a client’s website, we really don’t want to be developing the website in unfamiliar territory, nor do we want run into any bumps if their data source isn’t fit for purpose. For now, we can set assumptions against our requirement to portray what we would typically expect within the client’s landscape, and if any of these are found not to be true, then we can justify a change in direction for a requirement through a change of scope, estimate, and change request!

As a website user, I want to be able to engage with a chatbot, so that I can easily find out store opening times and current stock levels.


Assumptions:
1. Assumes that the client’s existing data model is fit for purpose, and if any changes should be made, the client will take responsibility for these.

2. Assumes that the solution can be deployed using a embedded HTML code snippet, as per Microsoft’s standard approach.

Caveats

And last but not least, we have caveats. Clients may see these as the supplier creating ‘get out of jail free’ cards, but in reality, these are to ensure that everyone involved understands what should happen in the event that one of these factors occurs. Caveats are usually based on assumptions, but can extend further than this to cover typical project factors too.

As a website user, I want to be able to engage with a chatbot, so that I can easily find out store opening times and current stock levels.


Caveats:
1. If the data source should change after delivery, the client will be responsible for a change request for any errors that may occur with this solution if they wish to continue using the functionality.

2. If the client’s website cannot support HTML snippets for any given reason, the project may need to be delivered via a Power Apps Portal, which would incur extra cost to ensure the delivery is built to the correct standard.

Summary

When I describe this way of working with my team, I reference a phrase that may be familiar to some – It’s about the journey, not the destination. Imagine you have a 100 mile journey to make with no map functionality, digital or print. What would be your first move?

Success isn’t just the destination, or the solution in this case, it’s the route to it and the service provided along the way that counts. This continues to be a significant theme throughout the whole lifecycle of the project, and it can make or break the final engagement with the software.

The Power Of A Great User Story

For anyone that personally knows me, they will know that I am absolutely obsessed with getting User Stories right!

On the face of it, it may seem impossible to deliver part of a business process from one single sentence, but user stories are one of the best tools you can use, right from your initial engagement through to post go-live support as long as each part adds value.

What is a User Story?

User stories can help us to define a requirement for a business user or process that needs to be included within a project or product to ensure success. Generally speaking, user stories follow the following format:

As a [persona], I want to [achieve], so that I can [action].

That is all, one seemingly simple statement. Some may feel that writing user stories are a waste of time in an agile project, particularly as an agile project is supposed to deliver technical outputs quickly, however, user stories can actually speed up the turnaround time of the solution, providing that we pay particular and collaborative attention to it’s construction.

The Construction

Let’s take a look at what we want to achieve from each part of the User Story and how we can add value. As I am a Power Platform and Dynamics 365 Customer Engagement consulting manager, I’ll be using an example from Dynamics 365 Customer Service.

As a [persona],…

It would be easy to write “As a user…” here and be done, but this doesn’t tell us anything except that this isn’t an automated process.

Particularly in the Power Platform and Dynamics 365 space, the functionality and security model can span multiple applications, so perhaps we can describe the user and the way that they’re accessing the product or feature.

As a Customer Service Representative accessing the standard Customer Service Hub application,

From the above, we can understand that:

  • The user definitely needs a Dynamics 365 Customer Service license if existing licenses do not allow access.
  • The user is likely to use the standard Security Role provided due to the persona’s role.
  • The user is not expecting a tailored sitemap experience, as they will access the application through existing means.
  • The experience is triggered by end user behaviour rather than automated processes, until we discover more about the rest of the story.

I want to [achieve],…

We now want to ensure that we describe the Customer Service Representative’s objective in this part of the user story, so that we can start to understand our scope and design our solution.

As a Customer Service Representative accessing the standard Customer Service Hub application, I want to see all of my priority ‘1 – Blocker’ Cases in a separate list sorted by oldest to newest creation date,…

To add to our previous understanding, we now know:

  • The user has a focus on Cases that need the highest amount of attention, and these should be categorised by priority. Right now we don’t know the full list of priorities, but we can add that as a known unknown in our design.
  • The user needs a new view for just the Cases categorised by this priority, and the out-of-the-box priorities are High, Medium, Low. It seems like we need to carry out Column and List configuration in Dataverse here.
  • The List that we configure needs to include the Created On date, and needs a sorting on this Column too.

So that I can [action].

The primary purpose of this part of the user story is to justify the action through behaviour. Some consider this part of the user story optional, however I like to ensure it’s included in every user story as it can significantly change the estimate required to deliver.

This part of the user story doesn’t just have design benefits, but it can also help us prioritise the user story against other user stories in the backlog when we are working in iterations or sprints.

As a Customer Service Representative accessing the standard Customer Service Hub application, I want to see all of my priority ‘1 – Blocker’ Cases in a separate list sorted by oldest to newest creation date, so that I can ensure that we do our best to meet our 1 day ‘solution or workaround’ Service Level Agreement (SLA) for blocked customers.

We now know why this design is so important, and we can deduce the following:

  • The organisation makes promises within their agreements with customers to ensure that business processes aren’t blocked for more than one day, and this needs to be a core emphasise within the design.
  • We can ask if we can further improve the design by introducing system triggered Service Level Agreement functionality.
  • Most importantly, another business initialism has been cleared up, by clarifying why the customer keeps writing SLA all over their documents!

Isn’t This Too Much Detail?

Not at all. It’s unlikely that we will every get to this level of detail within one round of workshops, however, through refinement during iterations or sprints, this can tell us almost exactly how we need to build a feature. It will also help us more accurately estimate our delivery and provide a higher chance of passing tests after deployment.

One phrase I frequently hear is ‘we don’t need to worry, it’s just out of the box functionality’, but from one sentence regarding standard functionality, we have been able to arrive at 10 conclusions with definitive design that definitely carry an associated effort.

I am sure others reading this will find additional conclusions too, and this is the great thing about user stories – multiple perspectives can help to narrow down exactly what the client is asking for, and ultimately lead to a higher quality delivery.