Surface-area over volume ratio – a metaphor for software design

There’s a metaphor I had in mind for a long time when thinking about software design: because I’m proudly lazy, in order to make the code smaller and easier to learn, I must do my best to reduce the “surface-area over volume ratio” of the software.

Surface-area over volume ratio?

I like the Surface-area over volume ratio as a metaphor to express how to make software cheaper to discover and learn, and smaller to maintain as well.

For a given object, the surface-area over volume ratio is the amount of surface area per unit volume. For buildings and for animals, the smaller this ratio, the less the heat loss during the winter, hence a better thermal efficiency.

Have you ever noticed that huge warehouses were always cool even during the summer when it’s hot? This is just because in our real 3D world the surface-area over volume ratio is much smaller when the absolute size of the building increases.

The theory also mentions that the sphere is the optimal shape with respect to this ratio. In fact, the more “compact” the less the ratio, or the other way round we could define compactness of an object directly by its surface-area-over-volume ratio.

A dodecahedron, a volume that approximates a sphere with just 2D facets (Wikipedia picture)

What about software design?

Let’s consider that each method signature of each interface is part of the surface-area of the software, because this is what I have to learn primarily when I join the project. The larger the surface-area, the more time I’ll need to learn, provided I can even remember all of it.

Larger surface is not good for the developers.

On the  other hand, the implementation is part of what I would call the volume of the software, i.e. this is where the code is really doing its stuff. The more volume, the more powerful and richer the software. And of course the point of Object Orientation is that you don’t have to learn all the implementation in order to work on the project, as opposed to the interfaces and their method signatures.

Larger volume is good for the users (or the value brought by the software in general)

As a consequence we should try to minimize the surface-area over volume ratio, just like we’re trying to reduce it when designing a green building.

Can we extrapolate that we should design software to be more “compact” and more “sphere”-like?

Facets-like interfaces

Reusing the same interface as much as possible is obviously a way to reduce the surface-area of the software. Adhering to interfaces from the JDK or Google Guava, interfaces that are already well-known, helps even better: in our metaphor, an interface that we don’t have to learn comes for free, like a perfectly isolated wall in a building. We can almost omit it in our ratio.

To further reduce the ratio, we can find out every opportunity to use as much as possible the minimum set of common interfaces, even over unrelated concepts. At the extreme of this approach we get duck typing in dynamic languages. In our usual languages like Java or C# we must introduce additional small interfaces, usually with one single method.

For example in a trading system, every class with a isInCurrency(Currency) method can implement a common interface CurrencySpecific. As a result, a lot of processing (filtering etc.) on stuff that is related to currencies in some way can be done on all these classes without any knowledge about them, except their currency-specificity.

In this example, the currency-specificity we extracted into one interface is like a single facet over a larger volume made of several implementation. It makes our design more compact, it will be easier to learn, while offering a rich set of behaviors.

The limit for this approach of putting a lot of implementation code under the same interface is that sometimes it really makes no domain sense. Since code is primarily meant to describe the domain, without causing confusion we must be careful not to go too far. We must also take great care when sharing interfaces between bounded contexts, there’s a high risk of excessive coupling.

Faceted artwork (picture from

Yet another metric?

This metric could be measured by a tool, however the primary value is not in checking the figures, but in the thinking and taking care of making the design easy to learn (less surface-area), while delivering a lot of valuable behaviors (more volume).

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Visualizing Quality – keynote by Gojko Adzic at BDD Exchange 2011

How do you measure quality?  Number of defects? Customer happiness? Money earned? Developer smiles? That’s the question raised by @gojkoadzic in his keynote at the recent BDD and Agile Testing Exchange in London, to make us think and propose some elements of response.

We tend to ignore information

We are used to ignore automatic alarms, even fire alarms:  we just don’t care, but we care when a person tells us about an issue or is shouting “fire in the building!”.

Security Poster in a mine

As in the story of the Gloves on the Boardroom Table,  making the problem tangible and visible help trigger reactions. The book Switch gives examples of such surprising techniques. Sharing information is not enough, a company is like an elephant, you don’t really drive it, you motivate it to go where you’d like to go. So visualization can help there.

Best practices change over time, as the techniques in athleticism replace each other. For example at one company they disable most of their functional tests after a feature is developed, because they impede the frequency of their release cycle; on the other hand, they closely monitor the conversion rate of the website, which is for them the best metrics since it encompasses both the technical bugs and the business bugs.

This does not mean you should disable your functional tests, but it illustrate that what may seem nonsense today may be the next best practice tomorrow.

Absence of bugs ? Presence of quality

The absence of bugs is completely different than the presence of quality. Twitter has lots of bugs but most people are happy with it so it has quality; on the other hand, Nokia phones have no bug, yet if nobody likes them they have no quality either.

Onboard screens in a plane all showing a computer crash
Do we have quality here?

So how to measure quality? If you put 20 people in a room with 3 post-it’s each and ask them to write what attributes of the product they think are the most important, and if you get a small enough group of common answers then they are candidates of things you need to measure.

Usually quality c an be measured at 3 levels (the 3 P’s):
  1. Process effectiveness
  2. Product status
  3. Production performance

Here I have the feeling that each of the first two is just a proxy for the next, and only the last is the real one, though I’m not sure.

Test coverage is crap

Taking an example of a UI, a window with 5 buttons on it it will likely requires 5 time more testing than one with only one button, even if the later brings a lot more value, which suggests that test coverage is crap.

If test coverage itself is crap, you may however monitor your risk coverage, that is the amount of testing compared to the associated risk. This metrics helps identify where you need to test more.

Visualize to make information actionable

Once you know what to measure, you want to visualize it. James Bach proposes his technique of low-tech testing dashboard. You divide your system into high-level subsystems, and for each you monitor the “progress of testing”: not yet started, half done or done, and the “level of confidence so far” with 3 smileys from happy to anxious. That’s better than a bug-tracking tool with 500 tickets mixed altogether.

Another visualization mode is the use of effects maps, or ACC matrix. You may also monitor in realtime the feed of sentiment of every Twitter message about your company or product as they do at FINN Technology in Oslo.

As a conclusion, Gojko introduces the brand new website where you can find many ways to visualize your measures of quality and where you can contribute additional ones. Since making things visible is so essential for action, let’s try ideas and share them through this website!


The podcast of the full talk is available here:

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