The Architecture Risk Principle

February 28, 2018

If you are a digital product manager, UX architect, or design architect, it’s important for you to consider what I call the architecture risk principle (ARP). ARP correlates to a widely known statistical probability, called the Pareto principle. The Pareto principle, commonly referred to as the 80–20 rule, states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Likewise, the architecture risk principle asserts that architecture activities for any given project represents 20% of the effort, but effects roughly 80% of the subsequent collaborative efforts for design execution.

This means that sound digital architecture activities can mitigate up to 80% of a project’s risk—leaving design resources responsible for the remaining 20%.



Why Complex Projects Struggle or Fail at Execution

Design activities must naturally confront certain risks that architecture activities are unable to mitigate. Hence, architecture oversight must give way to design managers who coordinate domain-specific processes and their respective practitioners as they bear the remaining 20% of a project’s total risk.

However, when teams forego formal architecture activities and lead with iterative design execution, the responsibility of risk that’s placed on design managers and their staff (including software developers) increase by 400%; the crushing weight of this assumed responsibility is why projects fail.

This is a drastic and unrealistic transfer of responsibility that usually goes unacknowledged. The “canary in the coal mine” for a project often as tense exchange between team members to gain clarity and direction while simultaneously attempting to articulate a solution under fixed time constraints. Consequently, a significant portion of team resources are redirected to activities and documentation that fall into the realm of architecture.

“…the responsibility of risk that’s placed on managers, designers, and developers actually increases by 400%; the crushing weight of this assumed responsibility is why projects fail.”

When formal architecture activities take a back seat to design and engineering activities, talented managers, designers and software engineers will instinctively close essential architectural gaps while others go unresolved. As a result, the architectural gaps that are addressed during the design process create a patchwork-like architecture and likely fall short of being a reliable foundation for future complexity and scale.

Common Warning Signs of Architectural Gaps

  • An architecture lead is not assigned
  • No one has been assigned the responsibility to model the UI structure (information architecture)
  • Team members find it difficult to identify firm objectives
  • Ambiguous scope creates more questions than answers for designers and developers
  • Lack of UI- and UX-specific key performance measures
  • Absence of a shared vocabulary

Architecture Promotes Clarity

Architecture is an act of establishing a frame of reference for which owners, designers and technology teams collaborate to render an optimum solution. Translating owner intent and documenting a synthesized rationale across a wide range of factors are essential skills of a design architect.

Architects maintain the systemic view of understanding to effectively guide design teams and keep them on task. They are the most senior advocate of design and planning.

While hiring a design architect is not required on every project, organizations must do a better job at determining when to employ them. When senior UX designers assume an architecture role—which will happen more often that not— it’s important for them to acknowledge their assumption of this extended responsibility. In this way, when the team is faced with a future environment that warrants an exclusive architecture resource, the team and owner will be familiar with the value of the role.

What is a Design Architect?

If the “design architect” sounds like a new term to you, it’s because I’m proposing it here:

A design architect is a seasoned facilitator of experience strategy, design and management of complex application user interface environments. They are relied upon to help rationalize the phases of user engagement and expertly promote scope alignment in preparation for architecture, design, and engineering activities.

I’ll go into further detail about the design architect in another post. For now, let’s just review some obvious candidates for the position.

  • Senior Information Architects are a natural fit as design architect because they have the requisite skills for evaluating owner objects and modeling the domain and constraints that inform design and engineering. Their attention to detail, clarity, and actionable documentation are precursors to their keen ability to collaboration. If they do not have the creative and/or operational prowess to facilitate design, they are highly effective at partnering with design and product leads to ensure solid design execution.
  • Senior User Experience Strategist and UX Architects with extensive knowledge in leading teams are ideal prospects for the design architect role. These practitioners bring a strong focus on users, but understand how to balance their empathy for users with pragmatic business objectives. They consult with information architects and researchers to pitch vision and meaningful engagement, and are comfortable with immersing clients and teams in collaborative workshops to generate alignment.

Overall, the design architect is not the champion for the users; they are the champion of the business (owner) and the user. Striking a sustainable and equitable balance between the two is the strategic responsibility of the design architect.

A design architect is a seasoned facilitator of experience strategy, design and management of complex application user interface environments.

In Summary

The cost of poor architecture is real: Teams lose valuable time iterating over ambiguity, design and engineering contributors become over extended, and features and entire products meet their untimely demise due to major gaps in systemic thinking.

However, when architectural discipline is incorporated into the process of designing application user interfaces, organizations will improve time-to-market cycles, bring greater focus to team contributors, and see their systems of human digital experience deliver sustainable user and business value.