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Rebecca Wirfs-Brock’s Blog and Informal Essays

Agile Architecture Myths #1 Simple Design is Always Better

Over the next few weeks I plan to blog about some agile software architecture and design beliefs that can cause confusion and dissent on agile teams (and angst for project and program managers). Johanna Rothman and I have jointly drawn up a list of misconceptions we’ve encountered as we’ve been working on our new agile architecture workshop. However, I take full responsibility for any ramblings and rants about them on my blog.

The first belief I want to challenge is this: simple designs are always better designs. If you want to quibble, you might say that I am being too strict in my wording. Perhaps I should hedge this claim by stating, “simple design is almost always better.” The corollary: more complex designs are never better. Complex design solutions aren’t as good as a simpler solutions because they are (pick one): harder to test, harder to extend, harder to understand, or harder to maintain.

To break down the old bad habits of doing overly speculative design (and wasting a lot of time and effort over-engineering), keep designs simple. Who can argue against simplicity?

I can and will. My problem with an overly narrow “keep it simple” mindset is that it fosters the practice of “keeping designs stupidly simple.” Never allowing time to explore design alternatives before jumping in and coding something that works can lead to under-performing, bulky code. Never allowing developers to rework code that already works to handle more nuances only serves to reinforce ill-formed management decisions to continually push for writing more code at the expense of designing better solutions. What we’ve done with this overemphasis on simplicity is to replace speculation with hasty coding.

Development may appear to go full throttle for a while with that absurdly simple practice, but for more complex projects, eventually any lack of concerted design effort can cause things to falter. Sometimes more complex solutions lead to increased design flexibility and far less code. But you will never know until you try to design and build them.

One of the hardest things for agile developers is to achieve an appropriate balance between programming for today and anticipating tomorrow. The more speculative any solution is, the more chance it has of being impacted by changing requirements. But sometimes, spending time looking at that queue of user stories and other acceptance criteria can lead you to consider more complex, scalable solutions earlier, rather than way too late. And therein lies the challenge: Doing enough design thinking, coding and experimentation at opportune times.