“If projects have defined acceptance criteria, then project managers will be able to better manage stakeholder expectations, but how project outcomes will meet the needs should be discussed and documented early in the planning.”
Boy oh boy! Isn’t it “fun" trying to define acceptance criteria? You have to know your requirements cold. And usually you have to do this early on in the project scope. when you know least about the project.
“The indispensable first step to getting the things you want out of life is this: decide what you want.” - Ben Stein
What sets acceptance criteria apart from other ways of evaluating the goodness of project outcomes? Acceptance criteria describe what constitutes a successful outcome; but successful to whom? The buyer is the one who cares most about acceptance criteria, but you have to help the buyer know that.
In the minds of all the project contributors the end product may be perfectly functional, having met the requirements. But that does not necessarily mean that the product buyer is going to be happy with it.
Take perhaps a common kitchen scene at home with a grade school age girl and boy right after dinner, where fresh baked cookies just came out of the oven. The kids are no stranger to cookies. And these are the kind with M&Ms and NO nuts. Dad actually made them up from a mix and formed them on the cookie sheet. He didn’t just thaw the frozen kind. Dad was pleased with the outcome - warm, delicious cookies that the kids would love. What could go wrong?
Evan didn’t like that a few cookies had melted into each other and had to be cut apart. Laurie thought they did not have enough M&Ms, and they both wished there were more of them. Plus, they didn’t like waiting so long for the cookies to cool down.
The missing element? Assumed, mistaken, or weak acceptance criteria.
To get going on defining effective acceptance criteria, you want to establish open lines of communication with your buyers throughout the project, not just during planning and “user acceptance” testing where these criteria normally rear their heads.
Plan for collaborative working sessions between your product designers and all product end-users, where you jointly “nail down” how the product will be evaluated for “acceptability” at various stages in the project. Take a hard line: if a requirement cannot be measured or tested objectively it should be re-stated.
Once defined and agreed upon, as for deliverables and requirements, you need to control changes to acceptance criteria.
There are many ways to document this, such as in the scope statement. The Volere Requirements Specification Template has a particularly useful spot for acceptance criteria, right there on its requirements specification “SNOW" card that is used to capture requirements, called the “Fit Criterion.” It is the objective measure of a requirement’s meaning, and is used to evaluate how a solution fits the requirement.
Well designed, well-constructed, and well understood acceptance criteria will make, not break, a project, and will enhance your reputation as a professional and successful project manager. It is time well invested.