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Activity/Technique: SMART NFR Elicitation


Non-Functional Requirements (NFRs), including Quality Attributes (QAs), describe how a system provides its functionality, not what it does (which is the purpose of functional requirements specifications, possibly captured as user stories or use cases). Examples of key QAs are reliability, usability, efficiency (including performance and scalability), maintainability, and portability according to ISO/IEC standard 9126. ISO 9126 also lists functionality as a quality category; it is superseded by the newer “SQuaRE” standard ISO/IEC 25010:2011 .

Note that while common, the term “non-functional” and the acronym “NFR” are not received well by some thought leaders that prefer the term “extra-functional”. Not all non- or extra-functional requirements qualify as quality attributes, as there are technical, organizational, and educational constraints as well; hence, an additional term is needed. We decided for NFR here, primarily due to the popularity of this term in practice.

Goal and Purpose (When to Use and When not to Use)

As a requirements engineer, I would to find out and specify the quality characteristics and (non-)technical constraints of the system/software under construction.

Expressive, unambiguous NFRs that find their way into project plans and the minds of the project participants are the main output of architectural analysis. Without such NFRs, architecture design work becomes a blind flight; the project team is at the mercy of the client or internal project sponsor who can come up with new and more advanced requirements as they wish.

Practical challenges of NFR elicitation include:

Therefore, it is desirable to establish criteria and templates that allow architects and other participants to overcome these challenge so that NFR elicitation and architectural analysis can be conducted effectively and efficiently.

The following figure suggests a three-step approach: Stepwise Elicitation of Non-Functional Requirements (NFRs)

Instructions (Synopsis, Definition)

Select and apply a taxonomy consistently. There are many different NFRs, Quality Attributes (QAs) in particular. Many of these pertain to the runtime, others deal with software support and maintenance. Therefore, many attempts have been made to organize the QA landscape (ordered from informal and ad hoc to formal and complete):

Be SMART. General SMART criteria are frequently used in project and people management. All five letters can have different meanings; here, we use these meanings: S for specific, M for measurable, A for agreed upon, R for realistic, and T for time-bound.

The SMART criteria can be applied to NFR elicitation in a straightforward way and therefore serve as “meta-qualities” (quality attributes of/for quality attributes, that is):

S is about scoping the requirement (note that the word “specific” might suggest a different meaning, possibly similar to “M”?).

Which functional requirement or part of the design/system under construction requires the specified quality property?

Not all features need the same (high) availability. For example, an end user channel generating revenue every day differs from a once-per-month master data bulk update between backend systems. And not all qualities are as cross-cutting as security; even security sub-requirements might differ per data element/per user story/per component.

M is about monitoring the requirement throughout a project. You should be able to answer/assess:

Is the NFR achieved or not?

Explanations (or excuses?) for not coming up with numbers are easy to find; for instance, fear of over-commitment might cause under-specification. Such procrastination will get to you in the long run (some small examples from actual project examples are keywords such as: “standards compliance (past, present, future)”, “fully flexible data model”, “scale management console from human activities to system events”).

Assessments can be recorded in the following way:

ASR Specific (Y/N)? Measurable (Y/N)? Rationale for Answers Improvement (if Needed)
Req-1 [Y/N] [Y/N] (answer to question from above) (required change or n/a)
Req-n [Y/N] [Y/N]

Prioritize by effort, benefit, risk. See the IEEE Software article “A risk-based, value-oriented approach to quality requirements” by Martin Glinz for advice.


An example and a counter example are:

Question: Which of the above is SMARTer than the other?

In a telecommunications order management system, requirements that deal with external and internal quality properties may be:

An example of a constraint in the same scenario might be “only relational database management system X can be used because an enterprise-wide licensing agreement is in place and the required database administration skills have been built up”.

Availability is another example of an important NFR. A system is available if it is up and running and produces correct results (or: a system fails if it gives a wrong answer or no answer at all). Hence, the (in)famous availability requirement is “24x7”.1

The more a system fails, the less it is available; the longer it takes to repair a system after it fails, the less it is available. Systems that depend on others “inherit” their availability partly. “Mission-critical” middleware such as database management systems, transaction processing monitors, workflow management systems must be highly available — so that supported applications are able to meet their NFRs.

Benefits vs. Effort (Expected Benefits, Skill Levels)

See “A risk-based, value-oriented approach to quality requirements” by Martin Glinz for guidelines when to invest in deep and SMART NFR elicitation, and when not to.

Hints and Pitfalls to Avoid

The arc42 website provides eight more hints.

Origins and Signs of Use

NFRs and quality management have been a key theme in software engineering since the very beginnings 50+ years ago (@Bass:2012). Words ending with “-ility” often indicate NFR awareness and analysis.

The oldest reference that we found is a paper on “SMART Requirements” by Mannion and Keepence, defining A and T somewhat differently (@MannionKeepence:1995).

Numbers usually indicate that the ‘M’ property has been strived for; explicit mention of the system under construction and/or individual use cases/user stories and system components indicates the ‘S’ in SMART.

Application Architect and other decision makers produce NFR specifications, for instance Quality Attribute Scenarios (QAS) (@Bass:2012). QAS make the NFR specification smart and measurable (but also a bit repetitive); utility trees can help with prioritization (by business value and technical risk)

Practices and Techniques (Refinements, Guides)

More Information

See blog post “Do Software Architectures Meet Extra-Functional or Non-Functional Requirements?” by Cesare Pautasso and Olaf Zimmermann for a deeper (only half-serious) terminology discussion, examples, and pointers to related taxonomies and templates.

arc42 recommends to have top three to five QAs in Section 1 of architecture descriptions, suggests a Section 2 dealing with constraints, and puts the detailed quality requirements section towards the end in Section 10. The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) also covers NFRs.

Data Provenance

title: "Design Practice Repository (DPR): SMART NFR Elicitation"
author: Olaf Zimmermann (ZIO)
date: "03, 29, 2021"
copyright: Olaf Zimmermann, 2020-2021 (unless noted otherwise). All rights reserved.
license: Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
  1. Note that true high availability is expensive to achieve (think about maintenance intervals, need for fault-tolerant hardware, etc.).