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Conway's Law revisited

Published on Sep 17, 2014 by Paul Baker | Category: design

In 1968, Melvin Conway, an early computer scientist and hacker, published a paper in Datamation magazine entitled “How Do Committees Invent?” Conway described what would become known as “Conway’s Law” thusly

Any organization that designs a system (defined more broadly here than just information systems) will inevitably produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.

Some of his other observations, such as Ways must be found to reward design managers for keeping their organizations lean and flexible, would later influence the Agile software development movement which made itself known in 2001 through the Agile Manifesto.

I recently read his paper again and realized that Conway’s Law also sheds light on some of the design challenges we’d faced over the past 19 years. A few are described below.

Office layout = website structure

Perhaps the second or third website we created, in 1995, was for an association related to the pharmaceutical industry.

In preparation for the design, we had several productive meetings with the executive, marketing, customer service, and IT staff and  thought that we had a good grasp of their business functions and customer needs. (This was before clients let you talk to customers.)

After a couple of weeks, we came back with wireframes for a website that we felt members would find easy to use and useful.

To our surprise, the President and Marketing Director insisted that the web layout reflect the physical structure of their office—put Marketing next to IT, which was next to Membership Services, which was next to HR, etc.

I spent a good part of the next two weeks trying to convince them that their customers didn’t care how their offices were laid out; that they just wanted to be able to find things easily and finish tasks quickly. After several futile discussions, we finally gave up and designed the site the way they wanted.

Two years later, after they moved into a different building, they understood what we had been saying and allowed us to rationalize the site structure.

Customer service that isn’t

No, I’m not talking about Comcast.

A client with several hundred thousand customers asked us to diagnose problems—and suggest improvements—in their customer service software.

Early in our research we learned that the company had 16 departments, each with a department head who was responsible for designing and maintaining the parts of the system applicable to their department’s functions.

The user interface that resulted from such a communication structure had more than 40 pages with varying designs, severe complexities in the ways sections worked together, and frequent breakdowns.

Yet, each department head we talked with was convinced that they had fine-tuned their parts of the system over the years and that improvements were not needed.

We learned the intended functions of all parts of the system, then spent a few weeks in the customer service center observing agents as they helped customers in the real world.

A couple of months later, unencumbered by Conway’s Law, we were able to create a unified design of only a few pages that doubled agent productivity and greatly improved customer satisfaction.

Conway’s Law can help you approach new work or analyze the work of others. For instance

A web-based “worknet” for an organization whose reason for being is to help members network and learn from each other has a high chance of success, if it is well executed.

However, the same sort of project aimed at encouraging government workers to share information on common issues across different agencies must be approached differently. Typically, government procedures, bureaucracy, and incentives—communication structure—are not designed to encourage collaboration and sharing. The design challenge is to “teach an old dog new tricks.”

Sears is another example of the adverse effects of Conway’s Law. Current executive leadership encourages departments within the company to “compete” with each other based on the theory that each department’s operations will improve as a result.

But Sears’ primary money-making operations these days are public-facing websites that require the sharing of data about products, prices, shipping, etc, among departments through APIs. Sears’ competition structure, however, means that it’s not in the interest of Department A to help Department B unless it believes that helping Department B is in its best interest. Tough to make money in that type of environment.   

Designing an effective system for a client requires supporting their business and communication goals, but it doesn’t mean that you should mirror their communication structure. Understanding some of the implications of Conway's Law has changed our interactions with clients and helped us devise strategies to counteract their effects.

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