The Importance of Consumability

Consumability is a word that my blogging software hotly denies is a real word (with an angry red underline), but it is probably the most important word an architect needs to keep in the forefront of their minds and be mindful of when creating artifacts for consumption by a colleague or, more importantly, a client.

A great example of poor consumability is the first sentence of this blog.  I used 55 words to say: “Consumability is very important for architects” when I could have used 6.*

However, even this is not a good example of a consumable statement, because it doesn’t explain why it’s important.  People don’t remember things that aren’t important.  If I ask you to “Remember the number 37532”, then three days later you probably won’t be able to repeat that exact number.  However, if I say “I want to give you £10,000.  You need to remember the code for the locker it’s in though.  The number is 37532.”, then I’ll bet you’ll be able to recall that number next week, assuming you believe me, naturally.

That’s because this second sentence contains not only the information, but also explains its importance and relevance to you.  I.e. you care about this number.

Going back to the opening sentence of this entry, a more consumable message is:

You deliver no value as an architect if what you produce isn’t consumable.

I’ve worked with, worked for and managed architects, developers, testers and managers who, to their own frustration and detriment, just didn’t get this.  Enterprise architects who deliver a 600 page epic describing a business transformation; software architects who create full A3 page UML diagrams in 6pt font to fit it all in; or solution architects who proudly produce a 50 slide PowerPoint deck explaining solution options (borrowing the 6pt font idea from the software architect).

I’m guilty of it myself on a regular basis.  My worst offence was one of the first documents I ever wrote as a new graduate employee of IBM.  It was a magnificent 482 page test plan for the CICS Web and Document Interface.   It took a couple of months and is still 17 years later, the biggest single document that I’ve ever produced.

How many people actually read it?


Not even me.

Despite my effort, meticulousness and pride, it was an entirely pointless document.  The only result it could have achieved was to fool a few people in to thinking: “Wow!  That’s a big document.  It must be good!” and sometimes, that’s enough to move forward.  However, this is a pretty poor reflection on the person who works like that – they’ve likely forgotten that the goal of a business isn’t to create big documents, it’s to create something of value.

Don’t think that this is easy.  Simple is hard.  Very hard.  When I’m working on a set of, say, 8 slides it can take around a week to get to the right artifact, and that’s with close collaboration with PMs and BAs!  Barely 1 slide a day on average.  But, but you will save far more in not having subsequent clarification meetings, or people going off in the wrong direction because they’re misunderstood you.

A simple way to start on making your stuff more consumable is, for every paragraph, every slide and every diagram just take 30 seconds to ask yourself:

  1. What information am I trying to impart?  (Describing this often helps you replace what you had with something shorter and clearer.)
  2. Who is the audience?
  3. Why do they care?
  4. Why should they believe me?
  5. Do they already know all the necessary context?

If you can’t answer these five questions, then you need to rework what you’re producing or remove it entirely.

* A confession: I’m ashamed that the first sentence above is virtually what I actually wrote in seriousness to start this entry.  I hit return to start the next paragraph, reading back what I’d just written… and hung my head in shame for a moment as I realised what I’d done.  But, on the upside, it gave me a good hook!

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