The design of design, part 2

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Posted by: stak
Tags: design, books
Posted on: 2011-01-04 01:15:14

This post is about conceptual integrity and mental models. I've mentioned this topic before, but in the years since I've come to appreciate much more just how important it is. Brooks talks about conceptual integrity in Chapter 6 of The Design of Design, in the context of collaboration and teamwork. He says that "the solo designer or artist usually produces works with this integrity subconsciously; he tends to make each microdecision the same way each time he encounters it" and that this results in a distinctive design style and conceptual integrity.

I hadn't really thought about this aspect of it before reading this book, but it makes perfect sense because the best designs are simply expressions of a mental model held by somebody. It starts off when the designer has a complete model that is simple enough to completely hold in her head. In order to do this, a lot of the details need to be omitted from the mental model; the simplified essence of the design is what is imagined. That mental model is then used to generate the design, resolving the details as the design is created. The details are basically the microdecisions that Brooks refers to in the quote above. Each detail is resolved so that it is aligned with the overall goal of the project and the mental model.

Note that being able to hold the complete model in your head is essential for this. If the mental model is not simple enough, then the details will get resolved while only considering a subset of the model, and not the entire project. This results in microdecisions that are not perfectly aligned with the goals of the project, inconsistent style, and finally, a poor design.

In the context of team design, the mental model must be shared between all members of the team in order for the design to maintain a consistent style and remain coherent. I'm pretty sure that this is impossible to do perfectly. At team sizes of greater than two people, the difference in mental models is easily noticeable. Teams of size two are something of a special case - I still think that their mental models are not perfectly consistent, but it's much harder to detect. Brooks has a section in the book titled "Two-Person Teams Are Magical" which describes how the interaction between the members of a two-person team can lead to synchronization of effort and mental models. I think that makes sense, but only for as long as the two people are working together and freely exchanging ideas. As soon as they separate and start thinking about the model apart from one another, their mental models diverge faster and the coherence is harder to maintain.

One of the reasons for this is that transferring a mental model from one person to another is always lossy (at least with current non-telepathic communication channels). If you think about it, this transmission of mental models is something we've been trying to perfect for millenia - the transfer of the mental model from teacher to student is the essence of teaching in any domain. The reason it works better in a two-person team than in a three-person (or larger) team is basically an issue of psychology. If you are brainstorming and trying to explain your ideas to a number of listeners, and one of those listeners understands it before others do, you will tend to favor communication with that listener over the others. This results in any other listeners being "left behind" as the brainstorming proceeds. In the case of a two-person team, there are no other listeners to get left behind, so this situation doesn't arise. There's probably a whole raft of other human psychology factors that come into play here, but I'm pretty sure that the majority of them favor coherence in two-person teams over larger teams.

As an aside, Brooks also says that "any product ... must nevertheless be conceptually coherent to the single mind of the user." This is another point that I didn't pay much attention to before, but that illustrates exactly why a divide-and-conquer approach doesn't result in user-friendly designs. That is, if you have a team of designers, and each of them handles the design for a separate component of the project rather than sharing the same mental model, then each component will have conceptual integrity within itself, but the project as a whole will lack it. This means a user, who needs to use the entire system, will have to replicate the models from each member of the design team, which is much harder to do.

This last point reminds me of the git user manual, currently the single best piece of documentation I have ever read. Very few other tutorials on git (or any other RCS, or any other system, for that matter) try to help the user build a mental model of what is happening under the covers. They mostly give the user a bunch of commands for specific tasks (e.g. creating a new code branch) and expect them to figure out the rest.

The git manual, on the other hand, has a section on "Understanding history" early on, which allows the user to start building a mental model of what git is doing. The rest of the manual the explains the git commands in terms of that mental model, so that git is perfectly predictable and completely intuitive to the user. By "the user" here I really mean "me", since this is what happened when I read the manual. Literally overnight, I went from being a git n00b to being completely unafraid of git, and able to carry out any operations I wanted. If you haven't read the git user manual, and especially if you've never used git before, I strongly suggest you do so. I'm curious to see if it works the same for others as it did for me.

I'm convinced that Linus Torvalds had the kind of mental model I'm talking about when he designed git, and that is the reason why the design is so coherent. Since he was also the one who wrote the original version of the user manual, it's no surprise that it allows the reader to (approximately) re-create that original mental model and use that to understand git operations. I'm also convinced that the design coherence and simplicity of git, a direct result of the mental model Torvalds had, is the reason git is so widely popular today, despite alternatives that arguably offer more features with no significant disadvantage.

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