Design Choices - is it really BDUF vs. Agile?

Do we really end up with Chaos or randomness if we don't design upfront?
The question alone should be sufficient to warrant that the answer isn't so straightforward. Indeed, it would be a false dichotomy - so let's explore a few additional options, to create choice.


Let's tackle the model from left to right:

Upfront Design

The epitomal nemesis of agilists, "Upfront Design" (UD) is the idea that both the product and its creation process can be fixed before the product is created. This approach is only useful when the product is well known and there is something called a "Best Practice" for the creation process.
In terms of the Cynefin framework, UD is good for simple products. A cup, a pen - anything where it's easy to determine a cost effective, high quality production approach. This is very useful when the creation process is executed billions of times with little to no variation for an indefinite time.

Normally, Upfront Design isn't a one time design effort. There are extensive prototyping runs to get the product right and afterwards, to optimize the production process before the real production process starts, as later adjustments are expensive and may yield enormous scrap and rework. All of this upfront effort is expected to pay off once the first couple million units have been sold.
The problems of this approach in software development are closely related to ongoing change: There is no "final state" for a software product except "decommissioned".
Your users might just discover better options for meeting their need in certain areas of the product - would you want to force them to do with a suboptimal solution, just because you've finished your design?

Likewise, a new framework could be released that might cut development effort in half, providing better usability and higher value at better quality: Wouldn't you want to use it? UD would imply that you'd scrap your past efforts in the light of new information and return to the drawing board.

Industrial Design

In many aspects, Industrial Design (ID) is similar to Upfront Design - both product and process design are defined before the creation actually starts. There is one major difference, though: the design of the product itself is decoupled from the design of the product creation process. This creates leeway in product creation based on the needs of the producer.

ID accounts for specifying the key attributes of the product upfront and leaving the creation process open until a later stage. The approach acknowledges that the point in time when the "What and Why" is determined may be too early to decide on "How". In implementation, ID accounts for "many feasible practices" from which appropriate "best practices" are chosen by the process designer for optimizing meta attributes such as production time, cost or quality.

Glancing at the Cynefin framework, ID is great for complicated, compound products assembled from multiple components in extensive process chains. Take, for example, a cell phone, a car or even something as simple as a chair, all commodities which get mass-produced, although both with a limited lifetime and still a limited quantity.

The challenges of ID in software development are similar to those of UD: there is no "final state" for software - and by the time it gets into users' hands, requirements might already have changed.

While for most industrially created products, the economic rule "Supply creates its own demand" applies and marketing and sales efforts can be used to make the available product attractive to an audience - Enterprise Software Design is about creating a product for one specific audience that doesn't like to be told what they're supposed to need!

Most corporate software development still happens in a similar way, although in many cases, the creation process has been defined and standardized irrespective of the product, with the assumption that all software is the same from a development perspective: This might be akin to assuming that a gummy bear follows the same creation process as a car or a chair!
Software development doesn't produce the same software a million times - we create it once and use it. And the next product is different. If indeed your company pays developers to develop the same product time and again, I have a bridge to sell you ...


Emergent Design

Emergent Design (ED) is buzzword terrain, as different people have a different understanding of what this means, and while advocates of UD/ID might call ED "No design", we likewise see people who indeed have no design call their lack of structured approach ED. This muddies the waters and makes it complicated to understand what ED is really about.

From a Cynefin framework perspective, ED is a way of dealing with the chaotic Domain in product development - when neither the best solution nor implementation method are known or constant! ED is what typically happens during prototyping, when various options are on the table and by creating something tangible, appropriate design patterns start to emerge.

ED requires high discipline. as systematic application of different design approaches helps reduce both time and effort in establishing useful designs, yet the designers need to fully understand that at any time, following a pattern may lead to a dead end and the direction needs to be changed. ED therefore requires high skill in design, quick forward thinking as well as massive flexibility in backtracking and changing direction.

ED accounts for constantly changing, evolving and emerging customer needs, a near infinite solution space and the inability of any person to know the next step before it has been taken.

Modern software development infrastructure is a showcase for ED: It takes minutes rather than days to change a design pattern, add, modify or remove behaviours and get the product into users' hands. The cost of change on a product level with good engineering practice is so low that it's hardly worth thinking upfront whether a choice is right or wrong - a design choice can be reverted cheaper than its theoretical validation would be.

The downside of ED is that neglect in both process and product design can slow down, damage and potentially outright destroy a product. It is essential to have a good understanding of design patterns and be firm in software craftsmanship practices to take advantage of Emergent Design.


Integrated Design

With Integrated Design (IntD), the focus shifts away from when we design to how we design. While UD and ID assume that there are two separate types of design, namely product and process - ED assumes that product design patterns need to emerge through the application of process design patterns.
IntD takes an entirely different route, focusing on far more than specification - it doesn't just take into account meeting requirements and having a defined creation process.

Peeking at the Cynefin framework, Integrated Design is the most complex approach to design, as it combines several domains into a single purpose: an overall excellent product.

IntD interweaves disciplines - given Cloud Infrastructure, development techniques such as Canary Builds are much easier to realize, which in turn allow the delivery of experimental features to validate a hypothesis with minimal development effort, which in in turn requires production monitoring to be an integral part of the design process as well. The boundaries between product design, development, infrastructure and operation blur and disappear.

Integrated Design requires a high level of control over the environment, be it a requirement modification, a software change, a process change, user behaviour change or a technological change.
To achieve this, practitioners of IntD must master product design techniques, software development practices, the underlying technology stack including administrative processes, monitoring and data science analytics. I call the people who have this skillset, "DevOps".

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" - Arthur C. Clarke
While master DevOps do all of these things with ease, people unfamiliar with any of the above techniques may not recognize that a rigorous approach is being applied and ask for a more structured, distinguishable approach with clear dividing lines between product design, process design and system operation.
Rather than accepting the near-magical results produced by such a team, they might go on a witch hunt and burn the heretics at stake, in the wake destroying the product built in this fashion.


And then, finally, we still have the default option, oftentimes used as the strawman in the advocation of each other design approach:


No Design

While seemingly the easiest thing to do, it's myopic and fatal to have No Design. No reputable engineer would ever resort to applying No Design, even if they know their design might be defective, expensive or outright wrong.

The reasons why No Design aren't an option go a long way, including - but not limited to:

  • You don't know whether you achieved quality
  • You're continuously wasting time and money
  • You can't explain why you did what you did

The problem with No Design is that any design approach quickly deteriorates into No Design:

  • An UD software product tends to look like it had No Design after a couple of years when people constantly add new features that weren't part of the initial design.
  • When ID products change too much, their initial design becomes unrecognizable. The initial design principles look out of place and lacking purpose if they aren't reworked over time.
  • Applying ED without rigour and just hoping that things work out is, as mentioned previously, indeed, No Design.
  • While IntD is the furthest away from No Design, letting (sorry for the term) buffoons tamper with the an IntD system will quickly  render the intricate mesh of controls ineffective, to the point where an appearance of No Design indeed becomes No Design.


tl;dr

I have given you options for different types of design. The statement, "If we don't do it like this, it's No Design" is a false dichotomy.
This article is indeed biased in suggesting that "Integrated Design" is the best option for software development. This isn't a universal truth. An organization must have both the skillset and the discipline to apply ED/IntD techniques, otherwise they will not operate sustainably.


  • No Design is the default that requires no thinking - but it creates a mess.
  • Full-blown Big Design Upfront is a strawman. It rarely happens. Almost all software has versions and releases.
  • Industrial Design is the common approach. It nails down the important parts and gives leeway in the minute details. 
  • Emergent Software Design requires experience and practice to provide expected benefits. When applied haphazardly, it might destroy the product.
  • Integrated Software Design is a very advanced approach that requires high levels of expertise and discipled.

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