Construction vs. design

Posted: September 19, 2005 at 9:41 pm in links

I really liked Scott Berkun’s most recent essay, entitled “Why software sucks”. Berkun is a former Microsoft project manager, who’s now an independent author of project management books. I’m not sure where I ran across his web page, but his essays are often interesting and thought-provoking.

I liked the distinction he makes between construction and design, a distinction he draws from architecture.

Good architects, the people who make good buildings, are taught about the difference between construction and design. … Design starts with big strokes: sketches and prototypes for the customer’s experience that take on the big questions about the work (What’s it for? Who’s it for? How might it work? How will we know it’s successful?). Construction is the act of building things with technology. … It starts with small pieces and puts them together to make bigger pieces.”

It reminds me of Clay Shirky’s separation of radial vs. Cartesian thinkers, where Cartesian thinkers look at the big picture from an idealistic point of view, and radial thinkers start with what’s possible and work from there.

It also reminds me a little bit of Lucy Suchman’s distinction between plans and situated actions. Plans are the big picture (aka design), but they can’t fill in all of the details because the actual implementation of the plan (aka construction) requires being situated in the environment where the action will take place.

Berkun emphasizes the importance of being able to move back and forth between design and construction, being able to balance the conflicting realities of programmer and user. Perhaps because I was not trained as a programmer, it seems like I find it easier to accomplish this transition than many programmers, who care about how to make the code clean. As Berkun notes, “To worry about code aesthetics more than the aesthetics of the product itself is akin to a song writer worrying about the aesthetics of the sheet music instead of the quality of the sounds people hear when the band actually plays.”

I don’t really have any deep insight this evening. I just liked the essay, and am somewhat intrigued by this construction vs. design duality mirroring some other dualities that I’ve talked about previously.

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