Posted on: 17 March 2021
Senior UX Architect
On Compassion and Conway’s Law
Have you ever sat in a team meeting of a large website restructuring project and wondered “What are we all doing here?”
If so, consider the following:
This simple truth, disturbing and pleasing in equal measure, stands no argument and permits no dissent. It may seem morbid to dwell on it, or scandalous to even mention it. But there it is.
Just a fact. Yet, when kept in mind it may help bring some compassion to our lives; in both our dealings with those around us, as well as those we may never meet during our time here on Earth.
Let us look at how considering our inevitable demise can bring compassion to our work as designers.
What people choose, or are able, to do with their time is subject to infinite variety. Many attempt to stave off the inevitable through searching for the elixir of life or, more recently, bioengineering. Many more give it no thought at all.
We make plans with as much detail and ambition as we feel necessary, according to the Brownian motion of our early influences, natural tendencies and contemporary circumstances. We undertake these plans with as much success as fortune admits, then ascribe that degree of success to our own talents, either positively or negatively.
Large website restructures
For this article, we’re going to be examining the process of restructuring a large, information-heavy website. People tend not to make the restructuring of these websites the focus of their life’s work. Yet this is what many people find themselves doing, as a smaller part of a larger plan, or by being buffeted between other people’s plans.
For the people who work on these websites, maybe they’re just trying to keep the site up to date with the latest products, or balance the departmental politics of who gets to be featured on the home page. Maybe they’re trying to work out why site traffic is steadily decreasing, or why their advertising spend isn’t going as far as it used to.
Equally, people tend not to make the visiting of a large, information-heavy website the focal point of their life, the culmination of many years of planning and execution. Yet this is where many people find themselves, as one of the many stages along their own personal path, however abstract that path may be.
For the visitors, maybe they’re trying to find out from their local council if anyone has commented on their planning application, or if they are eligible for certain important benefits. Maybe they’re researching a course of higher education or wondering if they need to bring a vacuum cleaner to their halls of residence. Possibly they’re finding out how to implement some baroque piece of technology in some small part of a project they’re working on.
In all cases, the website itself is incidental. You either work for the organisation that runs the website, in which case you want that site to be as easy to maintain as possible. Or, if you’re visiting the site, you want to be able to get the information you’re after and get on with your life. There are of course other factors, but we’ll leave them for that book I’m planning.
Let’s return to the people who run the site. They, or the organisation they work for, created the site, most likely in the early days of the web, when it was ‘the done thing’, when websites were little more than online signposts saying ‘we exist’.
It wasn’t until more recently when most websites like these could actually provide some functionality. Buying and selling. Leaving your digital footprint. Not adverts though. Unlike the latest renaissance of the web, these sites actually have a product. Or they are government sites. On these sites, still, refreshingly, you are not the product. They are the sites where you go if you need to get something done.
As these sites evolved, they will have had involvement from a wide variety of people. In the start, perhaps the CEO took an interest. Perhaps they had opinions on what a website should be. I once worked for a company whose roots lay in printed magazines. The CEO to this day insists on approving all changes to the website by viewing pages printed from his office inkjet.
Then they will have gotten themselves a web team. Maybe it was part of the IT department. Maybe it was part of marketing. Different people got involved, different opinions, different approaches.
What is Conway’s law?
What came to be known as Conway’s law, after an adage introduced by Melvin Conway in a 1967 paper titled How Do Committees Invent?, states that “any organisation’s communication systems (defined broadly) will come to resemble it’s organisational structure”.
Fred Brooks in his 1995 book, The Mythical Man-Month, postulated that product quality is strongly affected by organization structure. This was proved empirically by Microsoft in a 2008 paper entitled The influence of organizational structure on software quality. More pertinent to our website example, Nigel Bevan stated in a 1997 paper, Usability issues in website design: “Organisations often produce web sites with a content and structure which mirrors the internal concerns of the organisation rather than the needs of the users of the site.”
This all works fine for a while. Although the website mirrors the organisation’s internal departments, there are not too many of these, so visitors don’t have too much trouble working out where they need to go.
But over time, things change.
Perhaps a new product gets introduced, and maybe it’s similar to two other products on the site. Where is its home? Which product does it more naturally go with? Or should it be a new category on its own? It doesn’t matter which option you go for, as it won’t be this product that makes things messy.
That will happen slowly, as more and more products get introduced and old products fade away. One department merges with another, new departments are created. Some products have a particularly tech-savvy team behind them, so they get their own website, free from the limitations of the legacy site, for whatever reason. If you work with services and not products, the same thing still applies: local government, higher education, local healthcare services, technology support sites, they all suffer from this. They all become a very complex web indeed.
Bevan puts it best when he says:
And so we return to the present day, and to our visitors.
They come fresh from social media, that saccharine-sweet land of play and outrage. Where you don’t have to look for things – they are fed to you. You might search for a hashtag or page once in a while, but the main thrust is in pushing content to you. “Here it is” they say, “specially for you”.
Or perhaps they’ve come from an ecommerce site. One of the newer ones, that was never a bricks-and-mortar affair. One of the ones that regularly monitor their site’s usability. These sites live or die by how easy they are to use, so everything is a simple as possible to find.
And then they visit our olde-worlde site. The one that doesn’t have millions in venture capital ensuring that the user experience can be finely honed to the point of being able to predict what people will click on. The one that possibly doesn’t even have any metrics in place to even know how well it’s performing – there is no Google-to-checkout funnel here, as this may not be a site that even has a checkout.
What are they looking at? How does that match what they are looking for? Do they use the same terminology as the people who built the site? If they’re looking for one of those newer bits, will they be able to work out where it’s been put?
Defaulting to Conway’s Law
If your organisation has defaulted to Conway’s law then it’s likely that the way things have been categorised will not make sense to the people who visit the site. Your site becomes a burden to the thousands of people who rely on it, who are obliged to visit it. They rely on your site, however fleetingly, as a step along the way towards achieving something for themselves.
It’s at this point that you need to recognise the need for change, for moving away from Conway’s law, from the default categorisation that your site has landed in, to a more user-centred approach.
Making this transition is a massive challenge, and one that we won’t be covering in full here. Customer Driven Transformationby Heapy, Oliver and Samperi is a good starter in my opinion. There’ll be more links at the end though, so don’t disappear yet!
The one thing that needs to be strong throughout the process is compassion. I say this as someone who has helped people through this a number of times, both as an external consultant and an in-house employee. In this uncertain, politically-charged, lengthy process – compassion is king. It starts, as we have seen, with compassion for the visitors to the site. The organisation, at least in some capacity, recognises that it needs to move from a ‘we exist’ website to a ‘we exist for you’ website. This is the only way to remain relevant, competitive and even legal.
But we also need to have compassion for our colleagues who are coming on this journey with us. While the maintainability of the site (including such thorny issues as who is responsible for keeping it up to date, who gets to be ‘on the front page’), has to take a back seat to the smooth visiting of the site.
Your colleagues need to feel that the effort they put into the restructure, which well may be in addition to their normal day job, is worth it. We need to spread compassion around with a big spade. Lay it on really thick!
Bringing your stakeholders on the journey with you, telling the story of the visitors to the site, helping them have compassion for these abstract visitors that they will never meet, is an essential part of this process. If you are not bringing everyone along with you, including everyone from the most itinerant employee to the highest echelons of management, then you are not going to be allowed to complete this process.
And that’s where compassion really comes in. Can you show enough compassion to people who can’t or won’t see the pain that the current state of affairs is causing to the organisation’s audience? Can you reach out to them, put it in terms that they understand?
Why should Trevor in accounting change the way he’s being processing his data for the last fifteen years? Can you even understand where he’s coming from when he tells you the bafflingly complex number of things he does that touch the website, that no-one else knew about until you asked him just now?
Or how about Leslie in head office? She is embarking on a project to rationalise and merge parts of the organisation. She is not interested in supporting another big project that doesn’t help meet her objectives. How can you make it relevant to her?
To conclude, how can bring all this together to help improve our web design projects?
The stories you tell your colleagues, to try and raise their compassion for the people who will visit the site, need to be told in a compassionate way. This will bring allies, reduce dissenters and enable your organisation to make this complex transition.
Tools and tricks
There are many tools, tricks and frameworks for undertaking service transformation. In the UK the Government Digital Service (GDS) is surely the forerunner, having worked intensively in this area for the last decade. We highly recommend their Service Toolkit with its accompanying Service Manual as a good place to start.
Closer to home, we at Akendi having been writing about service transformation for some while, as we’re big fans of improving services for users! Why not have a look at our free Service Blueprinting template, or learn more about stakeholder buy-in? Either way, we’ve got plenty of free tools and ideas for you to try out and share.
Compassion for everyone
There is one thing, however, that will carry you through all this. When you’re about to start another meeting, perhaps having to relate some research that may be contentious, take a look around the room (virtual or physical) and think to yourself:
I guarantee that no-one there has this, specific, meeting as their primary goal in life. Considering our mortality, genuinely getting a feel for what people are doing here, can really open the door to compassion.
Give it a try, and let me know how you got on.
Senior UX Architect