Hitchhiker's Guide to Software Architecture and Everything Else - by Michael Stal

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Stakeholder-specific Communication

Communication is one of the most importants aspects of software architecture design. The architecture itself is a means of communicating design decisions to customers, product managers, project managers, testers, integrators, and developers. However, these stakeholders have different expectations regarding the software architecture. While developers need a clear guideline how to implement the architecture design, customers may be more interested how (well) the software meets their requirements. The software architecture documentation and all other means of communication such as presentations must cover these various perspectives. To address such broad spectrum of interests, architects could provide a specific document for each particular kind of stakeholder which leads to an unacceptable amount of effort and time. This is why documents should rather explain the architecture decisions - the "what", the "how" and the "why" - in a top-down approach and add a guide-to-the-reader motivating who (i.e. which stakeholder) should read what in which order. For presentations or other forms of communication it might be worthwhile to introduce a specific variant for each stakeholder. A project manager or customer is typically not that interested in all those strategic and tactical design destails, while developers need all the information they can get. Thus, communication between architects and other stakeholders should take the stakeholder-specific interests into account. This implies, that architects need to have a clear understanding of these interests before starting documenting or communicating. Otherwise, they won't get buy-in for their software architecture by these different stakeholders. Personally, I have experienced so many projects where managers couldn't follow and understand what the architects told them overwhelmed by details they did not (have to) care about. And I also have been in so many meetings where software architects introduced high-level abstractions that could not provide the details developers and testers expected.
As a prerequisite it is necessary to ensure a common understanding of terminology. Did you ever attend a meeting where different participants had a different understanding of terms? Communication will not work and succeed when one person is speaking english, while the communication's target can only understand spanish. This might be obvious for real languages, but it is often underestimated for domain-specific languages. Did you once try to read and understand (!) a treatment record of your physician? He speaks english, you speak english, but this won't help you much. As a consequence, introducing a domain-specific language is valuable and essential. It does not have to be a full-blown language in the strict formal sense, but often it makes sense to offer more than just a glossary. The core functional architecture should represent the problem domain.
As a consequence, all communication between architects and stakeholders must happen in a stakeholder-specific way. When giving a presentation on the software architecture, make sure you know the target audience and their interests. Don't assume, other types of stakeholders understand software architecture the way you do. You are the doctor and they are the patients, so-to-speak. Communication may succeed or fail. The risk of failure can only be minimized if you can take and understand the perspective of your communication partners.
Obviously, these statements also hold for other kinds of communication. Have you ever tried to explain to your spouse why you need that cool new gadget for several hundred bucks? Try that by telling her/him the technical specifications. Won't work very well, right? What we take for granted in such situations (i.e., adapting the communication to your communication partner), represents also a conditio-sine-qua-non in software engineering. So, better mind the stakeholder-specific communication in the future :-)


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