Design, Requirements, Constraints and the Life's Principles

Constraints are a fact of life for designers.  The most obvious are the functional requirements: the functions that the system needs to perform.  These are usually well-defined since they relate to the external interfaces of the system.  In addition, non-functional requirements may also be soecified: these are constraints on how the system behaves.  The Life's Principles can be related to many of the examples given in Wikipedia:

  1. Execution qualities, such as security and usability, which are observable at run time.
  2. Evolution qualities, such as testability, maintainability, extensibility and scalability, which are embodied in the static structure of the software system.

Based on my experience in the Information Technology and software industry, designers and developers generally did not like dealing with non-function requirements.  If they exist at all, they are often vague statements that are hard to operationalize.  Clients often put little emphasis on non-functional requirements because they are largely invisible to the end user, although they may be of great interest to the operations staff who run and maintain the systems.  Nevertheless, failure to design how the system behaves has been the downfall of numerous projects, sometimes in the short-term if a serious security flow is detected, sometimes in the long- term if scalability and maintainability are ignored.

Constraints are often perceived as limiting creativity, yet meaningful constraints can encourage designers to consider fundamental issues affecting the success of their design.  For example, the TechnologyReview article Battery to Take On Diesel and Natural Gas echoes the Life's Principle Use Life-friendly Chemistry:

Whitacre developed the batteries with low cost and durability in mind from the start. In searching for potential electrode materials, he limited himself to cheap, abundant elements, settling on sodium and manganese.  He also picked a water-based electrolyte that's safer and cheaper than the organic ones used in lithium-ion batteries.  In turn, this allowed him to use cheap manufacturing equipment to make them. To keep costs down, the company is making the batteries with equipment that's normally used to make food or aspirin.  ... "Some papers proposing new battery materials look great until you read the fine print about how they're made," Whitacre says. "We focused on manufacturing from the beginning."

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system is another example where operationalizing building qualities has resulted in significant changes within the discipline of architecture.  LEED certification is increasingly seen as mandatory and customers are willing to pay a premium not just because of future energy savings but because LEED buildings are generally better across a wide range of criteria.

One of the challenges of seeing constraints in a positive light is their often negative connotations.   TIME (February 20/2012) in Eat Like An Italian described the benefits of a traditional diet but also suggested that "The Mediterranean diet ... was a product of poverty .... Their diet was healthy, but it was a menu of privation."  As incomes grew and cheap food became available, the Mediterranean diet has largely disappeared. The article ends on a positive note: Italy benefits from "a culture that venerates food and a generation that remembers the ways things were."  The challenge is take concepts associated with constraint and make them both viable and appealing.  One of the strengths of the Life's Principles is their positive wording that encourages design creativity.

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