Blog post

Software Needs Its Own Bauhaus Movement

By Brian Prentice | June 23, 2009 | 1 Comment

Feature-itis & The Design Imperative

Form follows function.

We’ve heard it often and many of us are probably aware of it’s historic connection with the Bauhaus movement of the early through mid-20th century.

One of the key perspectives of the Bauhaus movement was a rejection of the superficial ornamentation so commonly found in the arts, crafts and architecture of the 19th century. In its place emerged streamlined, minimalist design forms meant to capture the essence of an objects purpose.

But what happens when functionality becomes superficial ornamentation? By extension, form must also ultimately fail.That is exactly the dilemma facing the software industry.

Conventional wisdom states that the value of software is correlated to requirements and users. That equation is linear – the more features the more potential users, the more potential users the more value. This “total is greater than sum of its parts” perspective is pervasive in the software engineering community and even amongst many designers. However, this view is self-referential – it sees the value of software through software.

But what we’re increasingly understanding is that for users, software is merely a conduit. Their focus has always been squarely on its purpose. However, as a software solution evolves to meet as many users “requirements” as possible, it actually ends up obfuscating value to its constituents rather than increasing it. This is my point. For the end user, every additional capability beyond what serves their direct purpose is superfluous ornamentation.

In the true spirit of the Bauhaus, users are clearly seeking ways to rid themselves of this ornamentation. That message is largely lost on those responsible for creating these solutions for them.

Form following function worked for Walter Gropius but it won’t be good enough for the software industry. We need a movement that re-engages us with the concept of purpose. Purpose which has clear human dimension. Purpose whose distinctions are deemed as important as its definition. Purpose which serves to actively engage its user spurring creative applications unimagined by its designer.

When function follows clear purpose, form can follow function.

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1 Comment

  • Evan Quinn says:

    Could not agree more Brian. Moore’s Law has not even come close to applying to software. I have witnessed all the major movements over the past 37 years (yes, that is right, 37) that have attempted to better connect users needs to software development processes, from structured systems analysis/design to CASE to DFDs to objects, then visual objects/RAD to BPM/Workflow to SOA to open source to model driven to outsourcing/round-the-clock to “agile” and Web 2.0 scripting techniques, ad nauseum, etc. etc. The entire development lifecycle has received, in my view, only incremental improvements. Those improvements in speed and quality of development have barely kept pace with the expectations of users in terms of application sophistication, and expectations on turnaround time of development. There have not really been what I would consider to be major breakthroughs, anything that really changes the creative process of figuring out what is useful to users.

    Of course, the governor on software development insinuates itself into all technical development, from chip design to manufacturing, to higher-level embedded applications, to software development tools – not just to enterprise apps, consumer apps and web sites. This is a HUGE issue your bring up.

    Perhaps it gets down to that term “creative process” because usually we have a “cat chasing its tail” syndrome of developer trying to anticipate what the user wants/needs, which of course the user doesn’t really know either, so we get stuck in step-by-step cycles of mildly creative ping-pong, which often loses momentum and ends up in a quagmire. No commercial tool or technique I have seen directly addresses this syndrome. A tool and/or technique that breaks the barriers in that process has been a long-time coming.

    Most likely the answer(s) remain buried in the pure research that happens at places like MIT, Stanford, Carnegie-Mellon and some of the commercial vendors labs (so HP, where I work, IBM, MSFT, etc.). If there are answers down there the technology transfer has not yet made it to the development marketplace. Probably the last three major movements in software development, from the most recent, let’s say SOA, then Java/OOP, and before that visual development (VB, Delphi and such) were all primarily focused on coding. The groundwork at OMG around MDA/development holds a piece to changing that “user requirements definition” puzzle. But largely we remain stuck in that user/developer process, whether tactically together or via “throw it over the wall and see what sticks” method. Crowdsourcing has to be part of the new app dev tool to address this old conundrum.

    Some start-up some day will change all of this, someone will break the code of how to engage users/developers into a massive and breakthrough fast creative landslide of requirements definition, and further how to turn that into code. Hope I get invited to family and friends of that start-up. Until then, the developer community will continue to slog through understanding and predicting what users want. Perhaps most ironically, the deep research on social computing and user preference (which is built on generations of technology) holds the key to the lock on user requirements. Developers need to find a way to get inside of users’ minds, and unlock the creativity therein. The genius developer understands that the really genius resides in the users.