What is Requirements Traceability and Why Does it Matter for Product Teams?

Jama Software

What is requirements traceability

Product complexity is growing at an exponential rate. As it does, requirements move between more and more departments and stakeholders throughout the course of the development process. Requirements traceability helps product teams overcome one of the biggest challenges they face with requirements management.

The number of decision points is higher than it’s ever been. Each decision needs to be made understanding the impact on the requirement itself and on the product overall. It is essential to maintain visibility into the activity taking place and to be able to tie it all together.

That’s where requirements traceability comes in. What follows is a look at the definition of requirements traceability, as well as its purpose, importance, and benefits. You’ll also find common challenges of requirements traceability, along with a few ideas to help you start overcoming those obstacles today.

What is requirements traceability?

Requirements traceability is the tracking of requirements throughout the product development lifecycle. It is a documented thread that provides forward and backward visibility into all activity surrounding each requirement (including design, development, testing, and support). Requirements traceability helps minimize the risk of negative outcomes and maximize productivity. Its benefits include greater team efficiency, easier regulatory compliance, and higher-quality products.

Complex Upstream and Downstream Requirements Traceability

The purpose and importance of requirements traceability

Requirements traceability enables product teams to associate a specific requirement with all the related project artifacts, as well as other requirements, both forward and backward, so that anyone can see how the activity relates to the requirement—and vice versa—at any point during development. This functionality, also called live traceability, fosters team collaboration and enables early detection of possible production risks.

Think of it this way: How important is it to have your products developed correctly in terms of definition, quality, and timing? Mission critical, right? That’s why requirements traceability is so critical.

Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of requirements traceability throughout the product development lifecycle. For example, live traceability:

  • Simplifies project estimates
  • Enhances process visibility
  • Increases development efficiency
  • Improves impact analysis of change
  • Demonstrates verification and validation
  • Strengthens product quality
  • Proves compliance or functional safety

A single line of sight on a requirement, or a digital thread, is supremely important for application lifecycle management (ALM) and product lifecycle management (PLM). Both endure tight timelines and increasing numbers of requirements — including those from regulations, where compliance is non-negotiable.

Knowing the relationship between requirements, risk, tests, and so forth, is the difference between developing a compliant product on time and getting stuck in rework, delaying launches, and dealing with unhappy stakeholders. With requirements traceability, you don’t have to compromise on speed or quality.

The bottom line is that end-to-end traceability confirms you’re building the right thing and helps you prove compliance or functional safety. Without requirements traceability your development efficiency and product quality are in jeopardy.

Forward and backward traceability: The mechanics of creating a digital thread

To connect all the phases of the product development lifecycle, from customer needs through support, four distinct kinds of links must be used to thread the process end-to-end. This includes high-level requirements as well as derived requirements—those not specifically defined but necessary for meeting defined requirements or having the system work as expected. Derived requirements must also be adequately traced to reap the full benefits of live traceability.

RELATED POST: How to Perform Better Impact Analysis on Upstream and Downstream Relationships

What is forward traceability?

There are two kinds of forward traceability: forward to requirements and forward from requirements. They both trace from an upstream component to downstream artifacts. The difference is in where they begin.

Forward to requirements traces from customer need to requirements. This is important because customer needs can evolve over time. If they do, requirements may need to change as a result. Following this type of forward traceability enables teams to be informed of changes in priorities at any time throughout development.

Forward from requirements traces relationships between requirements and corresponding downstream artifacts, including test cases. This type of trace ensures that each requirement is not only satisfied but verified and validated.

Backward Trace

What is backward traceability? 

Like forward traceability, there are two kinds of backward traceability. This pair traces from an endpoint, or downstream work product, to upstream elements. The two types of backward traceability have differing starting points.

Backward from requirements gives insight on how a requirement came to be by linking the requirement to the customer use case it addresses. This enables teams to improve decision making by understanding the origin of a requirement.

Backward to requirements begins at performed work and traces to its requirement. It gives visibility into why specific items were created and how different pieces of a system fit together. Tracing in this way also allows testers to find gaps or missing requirements.

RELATED POST: Checklist: Selecting a Requirements Management Tool

What is bidirectional traceability?

Bidirectional requirements traceability is the ability to perform both forward and backward traceability. Bidirectional traceability is the optimal type of traceability because it gives teams full visibility from requirements specifications through building, testing, changes, defects, and back again. Traceability of this caliber can only be achieved through automated requirements management tools, such as Jama Connect®.

Requirements Traceability Relationship Map

Common challenges of requirements traceability

If all this sounds like traceability is too difficult, fear not. While there are some challenges to requirements traceability, there are also many templates and tools you can use to streamline the process (more on that below). For now, let’s tackle some of the challenges so you can see how they can be overcome.

Differing organizational viewpoints.

Not everyone has the same understanding of why and how traceability should be performed. Stakeholders in sponsor or management positions may only view requirements traceability from a standard or regulatory perspective. They see it as a “must-have” but may not understand the additional benefits of requirements traceability (as discussed above) in the way a project or systems engineer might.

One way to tackle this obstacle is to educate stakeholders on what can be achieved if end-to-end traceability is achieved. Share this article with everyone involved in your development process so they can have a basic understanding of why requirements traceability is an essential part of requirements management, beyond simply knowing they need it to cover their bases.

Organization-wide adoption.

There are a variety of reasons a company might be slow to adopt traceability. Training is one such example. As considered regarding stakeholders, not all teams or individuals working on a project know why traceability is so crucial, or they simply may not know how to execute proper traceability correctly. Additionally, some people may be worried that traceability data from their decision points could come back to bite them.

If this is a challenge for your organization, again, education is imperative. But even beyond that, you need to create a culture in which traceability is seen as an inherent part of the development process. Start by creating clear policies regarding how the organization manages traceability. Then develop a positive training program for all new and existing employees to complete. If you choose a requirements management tool, make sure it has a strong track record of being intuitive and easy to use software that adapts to your process—not the other way around.

Want the inside scoop? See what users are saying about Jama Connect

Cost of implementation.

Getting an entire development organization on the same page regarding requirements traceability, then ensuring proper execution, can be a costly endeavor. The time spent developing policies, conducting training, and creating/maintaining traceability data add up and can even make folks feel less productive. Additionally, you may choose to adopt a traceability tool to streamline your process, which means upfront costs will be higher than previous projects.

Overcoming this obstacle requires a mindset change. We urge you to consider the cost of doing nothing. Unproductive work time, lengthy time-to-market, rework, and defects are all extremely expensive symptoms of inadequate requirements traceability. Each of these carries a hefty price tag. For a look at exactly how much these complications could be costing your organization, check out the calculators on pages 9-11 in our Buyer’s Guide. While there are costs to implementing requirements traceability and management tools, the amount saved throughout the development process far outweighs the short-term investment.

Managing change.

When building complex products, change is inevitable. It is essential that team members know about the changes and scope their impact across the product development lifecycle. That means looking closely at any related system requirements, downstream requirements, and verification tests that may be affected.

Performing this activity can be cumbersome and time consuming with manual requirements traceability tools. And the associated risks are similar to doing nothing, simply because you cannot be sure you’ve accounted for everything when dealing with static documents and human error.

If you’ve experienced this setback in your organization, it may be time to explore automated requirements management tools that enable live traceability with living requirements.

RELATED POST: Nonfunctional Requirements vs. Functional Requirements – What’s the difference? 

Improper management tools.

Some development teams are still tracing requirement relationships using Word or Excel documents and collaborating via email. A Requirements Traceability Matrix is one example of a document that manually traces elements of requirements management including, business requirements, objectives, design elements, and test cases via a spreadsheet. Teams input the list of requirements and fill in the related data. The spreadsheet is static but is updated manually by the team throughout the development lifecycle.

There can be advantages to using a Requirements Traceability Matrix if you are developing a product that doesn’t have many requirements. And it is better than not tracing at all. You can even use a template to create a Requirements Traceability Matrix. However, if your product is complex, with many requirements, you’ll likely experience many of the challenges discussed above.

In the case of complex products, a Requirements Traceability Matrix does not have the functionality you’ll need to keep up with the pace of change and create a quality product in the timeframe required by stakeholders. Flexible requirements management tools like Jama Connect can even capture trace relationships across teams and toolsets, further enhancing the benefits of traceability.

Insufficient compliance framework.

Regulated industries need requirements management to demonstrate compliance with industry standards. There are specific ways reviewers and regulators must receive regulatory submissions. To pass an audit you must present proof of comprehensive traceability.

If comprehensive traceability wasn’t performed throughout your development process, a lot of time will be committed to gathering the necessary information after the fact. Even if traceability was meticulously maintained in Word or Excel, there will still be time spent compiling it into an acceptable format for regulatory submission. In the meantime, competitors that make traceability inherent to their process will be first to market.

Sound familiar? Luckily, there are tools that perform end-to-end traceability and come with frameworks aligned with industry standards. Requirements management tools like Jama Connect simplify the audit process with export templates, thus speeding up the compliance presentation process.

RELATED POST: Requirements Management Tools and Software

Templates and tools to streamline the requirements traceability process

There are numerous tools available to assist with the requirements traceability process. It’s important to assess your needs to know what is best for you.

Are you creating a straightforward product that doesn’t have functional safety or regulatory requirements? If so, a Requirements Traceability Matrix may suffice. Download this Requirements Traceability Matrix template to get started today.

Are you creating a multifaceted product with both software and hardware components? Will you be required to prove functional safety or regulatory compliance? In these cases, you’ll need a requirements management tool with bidirectional traceability and compliance templates you can easily export.

Here’s some additional recommended content on traceability you might find helpful:

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