When I was a teenager, facing what I thought was a ‘tough decision’, my father gave me some powerful advice that I remember clearly to this day. It was: “the toughest part of any decision is moving the subjective to the objective. Most facts, when seen clearly in proper context, can make your decision clear. The decision still may not be easy, but at least you know it’s the best possible decision based on what you know.”
This advice is the foundation for Architecture-Based Analysis [ABA]. ABA is a series of methods which are used to make complex concepts clearer by removing the subjectiveness that is a natural part of being human. Specifically, ABA uses visual diagrams to simplify and clarify the situation (removing subjective bias) so that you can analyze possible courses of action to take next. Once a decision is made, you also get solid, objective requirements for what is needed to deliver the decision outcomes.
Because the words I just used will probably confuse most people, I will use ABA to explain ABA.
It turns out that words are often a terrible way to communicate. They are subject to interpretation – it is why you should never use a text message to communicate feelings, since most often you will make the situation worse. Instead, ABA uses visual imagery, which is a far more effective and efficient way to communicate.
To illustrate ABA, let’s play the CAPTCHA game. If you are not familiar with CAPTCHA, it is that infuriating method we use to prove to machines that we are, indeed, human. Our CAPTCHA challenge is to identify all the stop signs you see in the following image. I made this a little more difficult to illustrate my points.
Most people would say that there are five, including the one in the center. However, there is no word that says “STOP”; in fact, it is not even a red octagon. But we intuitively know that it is a sign and that it is likely to say “STOP” but is just pointing in a different direction.
This is a simple, visual depiction of a requirement – describing where to indicate “STOP” would take a great deal of words to describe. When you use more words, you tend to lose your audience, so text would probably fail to describe the requirement which is, “this is the point at which you need to come to a complete stop.”
Visualization is the first principle of ABA – “a picture is worth a thousand words,” as the saying goes. Visual images stimulate analytical thinking. Analyzing the images above, there are several questions you might ask, including “How well does that sign in the lower right work to communicate the need to stop?” Because the sign is in front of my house, I can tell you that it does not do a good job. As a result, the city needed an additional sign (shown next to it in the CAPTCHA grouping), telling the driver to look for a STOP sign.
It is understandable if you counted six instance of stop signs in the CAPTCHA image, including the bottom center picture. I intentionally added it to the CAPTCHA game is to illustrate the other principle of ABA - context.
In the CAPTCHA image, you see the red octagon associated with a STOP sign. However, when you see an enlarged image with the placement of the sign (shown to the left), we are able to use the additional information to document rules which differentiate it from what we know about a STOP sign. First, you must always come to a complete stop at the sign (you would not do that here). Second, a stop sign is placed at an intersection (this one is in the middle of the street). Assuming these rules are valid, the sign to the left does not meet the conditions to be considered a STOP sign.
ABA relies on both visualization and context to ensure that complex requirements can be clearly understood and communicated. The example I used here may seem simple, but that is what makes ABA a powerful analysis approach. In fact, until I created the illustration, it would not have occurred to me that I needed to capture the rule stating that a STOP sign needs to be at an intersection. The fact that the pictures brought this to my attention is the whole point of ABA. My subjective bias was uncovered - revealing a more accurate, objective understanding of what a STOP sign is, and what it is not. My father would be proud.
ABA principles have been used successfully for over 30 years to address challenges associated with sophisticated financial systems, military supply chains, even artificial intelligence learning algorithms. ABA is the focus for us at 2md, LLC; we provide a set of methods (a methodology) designed to empower anybody who needs to deliver effective change.