The myth of “undesigned”

Some teams talk as if design is something you can add to software later, saying, “Oh, that interface we built hasn’t been designed yet.” That way of thinking is based on a fundamental error.

The problem

Many real-world teams treat certain kinds of design, including visual design, user interface design, and interaction design, as quantities that you can add later. Often this is done with the best of intentions.

For example, the team’s designer may be unavailable, so the rest of the team will get to work on a story, building an obviously rough interface. If, by the time they’re done, the designer still isn’t available, the product owner might accept the story as complete, making a mental note to come back later, perhaps much later.

When somebody external comments on the ugly interface, the developers might say, “Oh, that hasn’t been designed yet.” They’re wrong.

Software is nothing but design

People often talk about software with an implied analogy to industrial production. One group of people makes up some blueprints, and then an entirely different group of people makes physical objects. That second group is judged not by the utility of the objects, but by conformance to the design. This can sometimes be a useful analogy, but in an important way it’s entirely false.

In truth, the creation of software is 100% design. The computer does all the work of making things happen in the real world. The software is just the blueprint the computer uses to decide what to do. In the same way that a good manufacturer is one that follows the instructions well, a good computer is one that executes the software faithfully and reliably. All the humans participating in the creation of software are involved in a joint design activity.

“Not designed” is badly designed

So if software is pure design, then what’s going on with the ugly interface? The notion that it is somehow “not designed” is wrong. It’s just badly designed. Why does that matter? Because good design isn’t something you can spray on later like a new coat of paint.

Programmers already know that for the kinds of design they appreciate. Good developers try hard to avoid  spewing out reams of confusing, badly organized code that they hope to clean it up later. They know that’s wasteful, and likely to hide tricky problems. Tactically, they may choose to leave certain things messy for a short period. But experienced developers do that judiciously, painfully aware of how easily a controlled low-quality situation can turn into an uncontrolled one.

Teams should have the same attitude about every kind of design that matters for their project. Each story should be well designed from every perspective before it is declared complete. That sounds like it could be a lot of work, but it needn’t be. As with the software architecture, other sorts of design can be approached incrementally and iteratively.

The only hard part is making sure that you have all key contributors working together. The easy way to do that? Put them all in a room, and have them release something every week. They’ll figure it out.

2 Comments

  1. Jeffrey Aguilera:

    “One group of people makes up some blueprints, and then an entirely different group of people makes physical objects. That second group is judged not by the utility of the objects, but by conformance to the design.”

    It’s not that this analogy is wrong for software. The analogy is apt. But the second group has been entirely automated (by members of the first group.) The second group is the compiler and build tools … and yes, the compiler is judged based on its conformance to the design (i.e., software.)

  2. William Pietri:

    Hi, Jeffery. That was exactly the point I was trying to make. Except I’m taking it one step further. The source code is the design, but the finished artifact is the running software, not just the object code.

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