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Alternatives to Formal Traceability

In my prior post The Trouble with Traceability I discussed the problems with doing requirements traceability, especially formal traceability using approaches like a requirements traceability matrix (RTM). Despite the flaws with traceability the underlying objective is sound: ensure that everything the customer or user requires is correctly delivered. So how can we achieve this objective?

There are a number of pragmatic practices that address this objective while avoiding the pitfalls afflicting formal traceability. I will start with a simpler form of traceability and then move on to practices seemingly unrelated to traceability.

Specification Highlighting to Track Test Coverage

A tester given a written specification to verify the software against must have some way of keeping track of their progress. One simple method is to highlight each statement in the specification as they test it. This is essentially tracking test coverage of the specification. I credit James Bach for this idea.

Testing Dashboard

A testing dashboard is great at illustrating overall testing progress and can be used as part of the summary in the final test report. To produce the dashboard first divided the system under test into test areas that usually correspond to features, components, or significant non-functional requirements. Then create a grid with the test areas as rows, and the columns report testing progress for each area. Key information to report per area is an assessment of quality (is this area ready to ship?), and the thoroughness of testing (test coverage and test effort). For an example and fuller explanation see James Bach's presentation on testing dashboards.

The testing dashboard is closest in form to a requirements traceability matrix - there's still a grid and something like requirements are listed down the grid. The big difference is that the dashboard shows a summary of testing for each area rather than listing individual tests and showing how they map.

Agile User Stories with Acceptance Tests

A common approach used by Agile methods is to divide requirements into fine-grained increments of business value called user stories and then define with examples or automated tests the criteria by which to accept that the story was correctly implemented. This takes a two-pronged approach to address traceability's objective. First, using fine-grained increments of functionality that are quickly developed minimizes the amount of work-in-progress that needs to be tracked and thus reduces the chance of mistakes. Second, the process produces tests for each user story early, sometimes before coding starts, so missing tests for a requirement is much less likely. Agile basically sufficiently changes how development is done to negate virtually all the sources of problems that would otherwise justify a requirements traceability matrix.

Task Tracking via Task Board

Popularized by Kanban but also used by many Agile teams, a task board is a practice for tracking the status of tasks. The board has multiple columns representing different status: the minimum set is usually "Not Started", "In Progress", and "Done". Tasks are placed on the board according to their status, and the team meets daily to discuss the tasks and update appropriately. I vastly prefer a physical task board on a wall, but for teams not co-located many online versions exist. Tasks are often quite fine-grained - one user story is often decomposed into multiple tasks.

Many teams include a status of "Testing" on the board, or use a symbol on the card to signify the completion of testing. Other quality control procedures such as code reviews can also be tracked. See the image below for an example of a task board with such states.

Example Task Board

The combination of fine-grained tasks, daily updates, and tracking quality ensures that each requirement that is tackled by the team is properly developed. This achieves traceability's objective.


Despite formal traceability being too effort-intensive for too little value the underlying objective should not be ignored. I have described a variety of alternative practices that help ensure that requirements are properly developed and tested with a more modest level of effort.

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