Index cards? But I want to work remotely…

Extract from

These are both arguments for the tactile feedback that comes from hard-copy, which I don’t deny. But neither addresses the original concern, which is with the drawbacks of a hard-copy-only approach.

Here’s my viewpoint. Parts are tongue-in-cheek in order to emphasize a point. Please take it in the spirit in which it was intended.

Assume three options:

index cards one word document, containing all requirements, separated by page breaks An Access database, with fields for description, importance, risk, etc. and a report that separates one requirement per page.

Note that I don’t assume a highly formal system such as Rational’s RequisitePro. I’ve used it, and found it somewhat constraining.

Rank each of the three alternatives according to the following criteria –

[Informal manipulation and categorizing]

Access wins hands down. You can filter or sort the database any way you want, instantly. Ever tried to sort or filter 135 handwritten cards (the number I’ve been quoted for the C3 project) manually? I haven’t, so I won’t comment. Maybe someone who has will let us know how rewarding they found the task to be. {You can’t really sort stories in Access. First of all, you don’t have them prioritized 1-135, you are lucky if you have them ranked high, medium or low. Second, the order is a moderately complex combination of risk, value, and what seems to make sense. Access is almost entirely useless for this purpose, when you actually try it. — RonJeffries} Index cards: Nice visceral feel, and the manual sorting and piling effort probably alleviates the old CarpalTunnelSyndrome you’ve got from too much time at the keyboard. Word: Exactly like index cards, except you have to wait for the printer to spool off 135 pages first 😦

[Refining requirements (unless you always get it right the first time, in which case: “we’re not worthy”)]

Access: Easy. Word: Easy. Index cards: Scratch out stuff that doesn’t apply anymore. Add a comment at the bottom, or write in the margin if you’ve already used up most of the room. If the margins are also filled, rewrite the whole card.

[Determine which requirements have changed recently]

Access: Easy. Word: Easy, since your version control system keeps old copies around. Index cards: Start shuffling.

[Concurrent access for review or update, not necessarily for the same purpose]

Access: Easy. Open the database on two terminals. Word: Easy. Open two copies of the file (can’t both be updating it, though) Index cards: “Hey, Ron, pass me that card when you’re done, OK?” “I don’t have it any more. I gave it to Kent 30 minutes ago”

[Chances of losing/misplacing a requirement]

Access: Keep your fingers off the delete key. Go back to the version control system if you screw up. Word: Keep your fingers off the delete key. Go back to the version control system if you screw up. Index cards: “Anybody seen the card for feature xyz?”

[Convincing “the man” (customer, management, marketing, whomever) that you’re on the ball]

Word: “All our requirements are in this document. Here’s a copy on diskette. Review it at your convenience and let me know if anything comes up.” Access: See Word. Index cards: “All our requirements are written on cards in this box. No, you can’t take them with you. If you want to review them, you can do it here, or I can get a secretary to photocopy them all for you, if you like. Let me know if you have problems reading my handwriting.”

Looking forward to the rebuttals…

All of the advantages for computerized are about technical things. All the advantages for cards are about people. Projects are about people.

Yes, and many of the purported advantages are just to make things look more important because they’re computerized and more formal.

This is one of the points made in TheMythOfThePaperlessOffice — that workplaces often shift from more efficient paper-based technologies to less efficient electronic technologies (electronic technologies can be either more or less efficient, of course) because computers symbolize The Future, Progress, and a New Way Of Doing Things. An office on the move, that’s what an office that uses cutting-edge technology is. Not an office that is stuck in the past. And the employees are left to cope with the less productive, but shinier, New Way. — ApoorvaMuralidhara

See IntroducingIndexCards for some counter-arguments to the above list.

Now when we don’t live in 80’s anymore, I believe the printed paper has nowadays a lot higher prestige than anything digital. I’ve requested people not to send me useless prints. I’d prefer reading basically everything on computer, the very same environment where I produce my own texts. For notes and scheduling I think one A4 should suffice for days. One can’t do more, even worse for you if you think you can.

After a while I found out why I was the only one complaining of paper prints. I seemed to be the only one who read them through. Tons of paper wasted in a university, never read, only to make someone feel or see oneself productive. I think the printers should be ditched, or at least placed in another building or something.

My rebuttal (again, for me only): I can’t debate at sufficient speed via a computer. Cards and speech are much faster for me. I have held computer mediated meetings, and they just don’t work (for me and what I need to get done).

Some specific points:

Access does not win at informal manipulation. It might at formal manipulation (I’m often not looking for structured queries like “user stories created Tuesday”). More “this one, and that one”. “That pile over there – hang on, I don’t think that story belongs there any more”.

When idea brainstorming, I’ve worked with several hundred cards. Cards are good when you’re not sure what the categories are yet, and you’re exploring. Once you know, some more formal system may work better.

Refining the requirements: I don’t see the index card description as a problem. The point is that in this phase the requirements are often pretty fluid anyway

Review or update: for the processes I’m talking about, we’re all in the same room at the same time. “Paul, pass me that card.” “Here you are”.

Basically, I think you’re assuming a level of formality of RequirementsTracking that I feel is not often needed. If it is needed, I’d probably agree with you about the need for a computerized version. But you’ll have lost some fluidity in doing that, and sometimes the cure’s then worse than the disease.

— PaulHudson

A few weeks before the time of my previous story, we all got together, customers and developers. We had one of those cool Elmo projectors that will project a card on the wall.

We went through the cards one at a time, projecting it, having the customers explain it, asking questions about it, giving it priority. Repeat for risk. Repeat for estimates.

When a story was unclear, we taught them to rip it up and write a new one.

Worked like a charm. And it turns out that anyone’s handwriting is easier to read on the wall than the computer fonts we had on some of the cards.

I’ve done it all possible ways. I hate cards. But in my experience they work best. — RonJeffries

To me, the greatest benefit of IndexCards is that they force you to not write too much. This is a big help to those of us who are still squishing the bitter juice of BigDesignUpFront from our brains.

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