Mark Thompson, of Time magazine, published an article today that made me smile. Sure it was partially due to good old American pride, but it was also my inner geek showing. Most people would probably read the article, titled “You’re a SEAL Stranded in Hostile Territory: What’s in Your Survival Kit?”, and focus on the impressive skills and deadly challenges faced by U.S. special forces. I get that and can geek out on that as well. Trust me, I have spent hours watching the Discovery Channel’s Surviving the Cut and shows like it. However, what I also see in article are requirements and user centered design. That is because Mr. Thompson’s article references a procurement solicitation published yesterday by the Naval Special Warfare Development Group for Personnel Recovery and Survival Kits. The solicitation covers the construction specification, parts and materials to be used in the survival kits taken on missions by the Navy SEALs.

As an example of the specification, the hard case used for the kit must be:

  • Capable of limited cooking without effecting the container finish (i.e. paint bubbling)
  • Capable of being used as a limited digging implement without affecting its ability to house contents (simultaneous function of digging and housing not required)
  • Shall have a weather resistant gasket able to keep out water during minor water immersion (i.e. river crossings, swimming)
  • Shall have a fastening system that is reusable and secure to prevent accidental openings
  • Top surface of kit must have permanently affixed a 2” x 3” piece of loop fastener (i.e. soft side of velcro)
  • Ruggedized to take heavy abuse while carried without damage to inner contents
  • Case shall securely hold all items below without rattling or other noises

I don’t know about you, but I find this fascinating! I love how the case by itself is multi-purpose: digging, cooking, storage… It makes sense given that the SEALs face a variety of survival scenarios but must also travel light and cannot afford to take along non-essential equipment.

But let’s put the Navy specification aside for a minute and think about what it reflects about requirements:

  1. That requirements are needed in a variety of industries and departments, not just Information Technology (IT)
  2. Well written requirements can mean the difference between success and failure (or life and death if you are a SEAL)
  3. Requirements need descriptive detail such as color, physical measurements, materials and examples of use – Sorry ladies, the SEALs specify “Desert Tan” or “OD/Forest Green”. Evidently hot pink isn’t so good for camouflage in combat.
  4. Written requirements benefit from visual models such as wireframes, diagrams and data flows to help further convey the intent (see the figure of a sample survival kit towards the bottom of the article)
  5. Well written requirements must meet a solid set of review criteria, so that they are: cohesive, complete, consistent, correct, unambiguous and testable
  6. Requirements must come from and take into account your users as well as the use scenarios for your product!

This last characteristic is really brought home when you think about who benefits from these survival kits. An analyst at the Pentagon did not think up these requirements in the back of a closet somewhere. They were likely gathered from military personnel and survival experts as well as improved over time as the Navy’s experiences surfaced new needs or necessary improvements. The process was not only collaborative but iterative as well!

We may not all get to design cool gadgets or life-saving products, but we can at least appreciate that fundamentally the process and role that we play in product development looks similar. Just imagine! All of the products that we use in our daily lives started at some point with someone communicating their requirements. There is probably some analyst out there right now coming up with a hot pink survival kit for consumer use that I would be willing to buy out of sheer cool factor! Hopefully, unlike the SEALs, I will never have a use for the “Universal Handcuff Key”.