Conway's Law is no joke

It’s likely that you’ve heard of Conway’s Law, an idea now over half a century old:

Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.

We often refer to Conway’s Law humorously, making fun of products that have clearly suffered at its hands. But it was intended as a valid sociological observation.

Indeed, we tend to assume that knowing about Conway’s Law means that it holds no sway over us. We design our products ‘for users’ with little acknowledgement of the context and constraints of the social structures of the organisation we work within. And yet these social structures hold so much power over us that we can’t avoid their influence.

A Harvard Business School research study (PDF) examined the mirroring hypothesis, which is analogous to Conway’s Law. They compared similar products (e.g. operating systems) created by either tightly-coupled commercial product organisations (e.g. Solaris) or by loosely-coupled open source communities (e.g. Linux). They found consistent differences in the architectural patterns adopted across product types.

That’s right, the nature of the organisation had more impact on system design than did the functionality of the product.

This tension between the needs of the user and the constraints of the organisation creating a system for them to use plays out on a daily basis. And user experiences are particularly sensitive to the results.

Here’s how the authors of the paper distinguished between tightly-coupled and loosely-coupled organisations:

  Tightly-coupled Loosely-coupled
Goals Shared, Explicit Diverse, Implicit
Membership Closed, Contracted Open, Voluntary
Authority Formal, Hierarchy Informal, Meritocracy
Location Centralized, Collocated Decentralized, Distributed
Behaviour Planned, Coordinated Emergent, Independent

Reading these characteristics, it should be easy enough to think of times when they impacted how you designed and built a web product.

Tomorrow we’ll look at one or two examples of how this can happen in UI Land.

How has Conway’s Law bitten you in the past? Reply and tell me a story.

All the best,

– Jim

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