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design: /di·'zin/

   n a deliberate plan for the creation or development of an object. vt: to create something according to plan.
   good design: /'gud —/ the product of deliberate forethought and careful understanding of the purpose of a subject, resulting in a subject which significantly improves its utility, allowing it to integrate seamlessly and naturally into the role for which it is intended.
false synonyms: fashion, decor.

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How Much is Too Much?

I recently had a discussion with a colleague about the design of a feature our team was working on. One component was a particular sticking point for this fellow.

"Dude, why so complicated? You should read a book on Extreme Programming!"

Implicit in this colleague's comments was that this thirty-year veteran of the craft was getting long in the tooth and wasn’t keeping up with things...

Extreme Programming, for those that may not already know, is a software development methodology, a specific breed of "Agile" software development that some have characterized as the greatest thing since (fill in your favorite creation) and others have labeled as a flash-in-the-pan passing trend. Stripping away both the glitter and the mud, XP (as it’s sometimes referred to) is a tool, not a panacea. It has its strengths and weaknesses, and over-application of this methodology is as likely to kill a project as under-application.

In short, to know how to use the tool, it’s also necessary to know when to use the tool.

Now, my colleague’s argument was that I was "over-engineering" one aspect of the feature, seemingly in direct contradiction to one of the XP tenets that typically gets expressed as build only what you need, and no more. The idea is that XP, desiring to foster a light, efficient, highly responsive development environment, is built on short, incremental improvements of the project. Typically, you never know what’s coming down the road, so you should code to today’s requirements. Just make sure that the code is as ready as possible to adapt to whatever does come down the road at you.

On the whole, this is a good thing. But there are exceptions; circumstances when this practice breaks down. Like I said, XP is a tool. You have to know when to use it, and when not to.

To illustrate a circumstance when Build Only What You Need breaks down, let’s consider a maze problem. Imagine that you’re plunked into the middle of a labyrinth, and your goal is the Golden Tower, which you can see glowing in the darkness in one direction. The first instinct is to pick the path that gets you closer to the tower. If it’s to your east, you pick a path as close to eastward as you can, then keep doing that until you reach the tower ... or a dead end.

But imagine the following (topologically simplified) maze problem, the Corral in the Labyrinth:

As said, the darkness allows you only limited foresight, features getting less clear the farther away you look—a condition not unlike looking into the future—so it's good to develop a strategy. A rule or a dozen.

A simple but effective rule might be "head in the direction of the tower, and in no other direction." In this case, you will have the illusion of making progress right up until the end. But the tower will remain just beyond reach. You have to backtrack, basically undoing all the effort you put into going down that path, if you want to get where you're going.

When the entire maze is visible, it’s clear that the most direct route is also the incorrect route. This rule that works so well for general cases clearly fails in this specific case (and any more complex variant, really.)

In fact, there is no static strategy (rules set in advance) that will solve all mazes efficiently, because there can always be another maze that confounds even the most complex set of rules. (And besides, avoiding complexity applies to methodology, too!) A fairly simple methodology that solves a large class of problems is goodness, even if it has its flaws. Basically, that’s XP.

What do you do about the flaws? Most of the time, they’re just part of the process. Whether going through mazes or working on software projects, a bit of backing out, of throwing away code and starting over, is inevitable.

But imagine if a whole team is in the maze, and one of the members says "Hey! I’ve been here before. We need to turn left, then head toward the tower." Leveraging experience can be a huge benefit, as opposed to applying dogmatic methodologies, even if it’s not always obvious to everybody at the time.

So too with this component my colleague and I were discussing: it wasn’t immediately obvious why the apparent complexity was "needed"—at least not to someone who hadn’t been down this path before—and that’s understandable. The concerns are valid, but that doesn’t mean that rote application of a methodology is always the best course.

In other words, you have to know how much is too much.

Sections: 2

A Concrete Example
 — Thomas M. Tuerke

The maze example above, while illustrative, might be a bit abstract. Here’s a more concrete example of how experience can improve on an otherwise static strategy.

Let’s say you want to travel from on the peninsula to that little novelty of San Francisco, Lombard Street, the south-west corner of that tourist haven, Fisherman's wharf. Most routing technologies will have you take US 101 there. Although US 101 is a freeway most of its length from Mexico to Canada, in San Francisco it becomes a surface street: Van Ness Avenue. This is fine. It will get you there.

But Van Ness is often congested—and the lights are not synchronized—meaning you spend a lot of time waiting and not a lot of time going. The locals, aware of this, take one of two streets to the west of Van Ness—Franklin northbound and Gough southbound—instead. These are one-way streets with greater capacity and less problem with lights (it’s far easier to time lights on a one-way street, as it turns out.)

So while most GPS software will have you take Van Ness, you’re actually better served to use one of these other streets, even if it’s a couple of blocks "in the wrong direction."

Another Concrete Example
 — Thomas M. Tuerke

Another concrete example (literally.) My high-school friend, an architect of the brick-and-mortar variety, tells this real-world story.

One of his clients was building a house, part of which is built "slab on grade," meaning that the house sits on a huge concrete slab right on the ground. The plan is for this part of the house to have a half bath (toilet and sink, no bath or shower.) However, the client had once indicated he might want to build that part out to become a rental property.

If that should happen, it would mean making that half bath into a full bath: tenants would probably like to bathe or shower. The architect, taking all this into consideration, proposed a design for the slab with that option built in.

Now, the client might (and did) reasonably argue "Why should I build (and pay for) that now, if I'm not going to do the conversion for a few years, if at all?"

Build only what you need, and no more.

Well, my friend the architect, having considerable experience in these matters, produced the following arguments.

  • Placing the additional plumbing now involves only a minimal increase in cost. Doing it later would be far more costly, since the existing slab would have to be jack-hammered out and a trench added for water and sewer service. (Here in California, slab now needs to be up to 8 inches thick, and be strengthened with rebar at 6-inch intervals; great for all the seismic activity, terrible for remodeling.) The noise, dust, loss of access to that part of the house during the conversion also needed to be taken into consideration.
  • The probability for actually doing the conversion is greater than the client may guess. Even if renting isn’t in the picture, the conversion would still have a favorable impact on the appraised value of the house (always a good thing when selling.) Plus, there’s the intangible "quality of life" value to consider, too.
  • His closing argument: if you want the option of conversion, this minor plumbing is "needed" to keep that a cost-effective option. "The more you think you'll pursue it someday, the more necessary this is now."

In the end, that line reasoning won out. My friend's experience in fact saved his client many thousands of dollars, since the conversion was done shortly thereafter anyway.