The difference between bugs and requirements – and how to handle them

What’s seems evidently different for some people might appear identical to others. Let’s see how different bugs and requirements really are.

There are different ways to look at this question…

By definition

If you look up the definitions of at the terms “bug” and “requirement” they may seem only vaguely similar, clearly distinct

Bug: “A […] bug is an error, flaw, failure or fault in a computer program or system that causes it to produce an incorrect or unexpected result, or to behave in unintended ways.” Software Bug, Wikipedia

 

Requirement: “1) A […] capability needed […] to […] achieve an objective.
2) A condition […] that must be met […] by a solution component to satisfy a contract, standard, specification, or other formally imposed documents.
3) [omitted]” IEEE, via Wikipedia

By point in time

But if you look at them by the point in time when they become manifest, they become a bit more similar.

A thing (like maybe some ‘feature’) that is not ‘available’ now, is just a requirement: “Cars should have visible (blinking) indicators that show where they want go” was a requirement before indicators were invented.

A thing that has been there once, but subsequently has disappeared, sometimes is a bug “That car’s indicator should blink” is a bug report for a car on the road today.

So in some cases whether you look at a bug or a requirement just depends on the point in time you’re at.

By reaction

When one looks at bugs or requirements with regard to the possible ways to handle them it somehow pays off to be sure who is looking. For now lets focus on the customer (product owner, product manager etc. – the person who pays for the things that the development team spends time on).

I don’t see any reason at all to react differently – except with regard to further context.

Given that a so-called ‘bug’ surfaces in an already published piece of software that is used regularly the fixing of a bug has to have some budget allocated. And obviously it needs to be prioritized. From a business point of view this means that fixing a bug just is fulfilling ’a condition that must be met to satisfy the formally documented desired behavior’ for this bug … sounds familiar?

If, on the other hand, the bug surfaces during the acceptance phase of a feature (or ‘system capability’) the situation is straightforward. Since the error wasn’t present in the previous version of the software the new feature can’t be accepted. The instruments of the respective process should be used to remedy the situation. That could be blocking the work-item, swarming, stop the line etc. – each way the error has to be fixed before the new feature can be accepted. Not a bug – just a requirement that has not yet been met.

By common (agile) sense

Now if we believe in test driven development (tdd) we start implementing each thing by writing some tests that tell us when we are done. If we follow behavior driven development (bdd) we might be able to map requirements directly to one or more bdd-specifications. Which we write first, before we implement the capability.

The first thing we do with a bug is to check whether we can reproduce it. Some people then write a test that demonstrates the bug. (according to the rule, that you just don‘t write any code that isn’t required by some broken test)

So bugs and requirements are both firstly described by a test that is ‘red’ (or breaking) and then implemented – not much of a difference here.

By work item type

Now this a thing that even in my opinion justifies to differentiate between a bug and a requirement – or isn’t it?

I think in some cases bugs (from a system that is already in use) are different from other requirements in the ratio between size and value. So while most system capabilities that can be described by user stories are comparatively expensive while bugs sometimes are cheap to (e.g. with little effort) fix and yield a high value by making the user experience much more enjoyable (for example if they don’t have to confirm erroneous error messages any longer).

There is no bug

In the end a bug just is special kind of requirement. And when and whether to fix it should be a business decision just like any other prioritization of requirements. For a web-based shop-system that has the bug “’stay logged in’ doesn’t work” and a feature request “Add the capability to use the most commonly requested credit card” the decision what to do next might very well favor the feature over the bug. From a business perspective it might be acceptable for a while if users have to re-enter their credentials every time, even though they activated the “stay logged in” box while not having the capability to pay by credit card can be a real problem for the business.
Some bugs are quite easy to live with, while it’s really a nuisance to live with some unmet requirements.

So – how do you handle your so-called bugs?

till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

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