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Three Principles of Software Architecture for Healthcare IT

January 29, 2009

The Roman architect Vitruvius in his treatise on architecture, De Architectura, asserted that there were three principles of good architecture:

  • Firmatis (Durability) – It should stand up robustly and remain in good condition.
  • Utilitas (Utility) – It should be useful and function well for the people using it.
  • Venustatis (Beauty) – It should delight people and raise their spirits.

The question on the table is: do these principles, meant to apply to physical architecture, apply to system architecture and more specifically clinical architecture? I believe that they do.

Any technologist “worth their salt” can easily see the value of the first two principles when it comes to architecture. Firmatis and Utilitas: It will last and it will do the job. Some, however, might scoff at the third principle of beauty.

Before you riddle me with derisive laughter, consider that architecture in the brick and mortar sense does not stop at the foundation or the framing. Architecture is about the whole enchilada. You don’t look at an ugly building with great framing and sexy plumbing and admire the architecture. By the same token, a beautiful building that caves in after five minutes due to bad internal architecture is not admired either, at least not for very long.

Most technologists can easily believe that the first two principles are our responsibility and the third is optional. I would argue that the third principle, venustatis, is at as important as the first two.

Why is Beauty important?

Let’s go back to Vitruvius and the translation of the first two paragraphs in book one of De Architectura titled “On the training of Architects”:

“The science of the architect depends upon many disciplines and various apprenticeships which are carried out in other arts. His personal service consists in craftsmanship and technology. Craftsmanship is continued and familiar practice, which is carried out by the hands in such material as is necessary for the purpose of a design. Technology sets forth and explains things wrought in accordance with technical skill and method.

So architects who without culture, aim at manual skill cannot gain a prestige corresponding to their labors, while those who trust to theory and literature obviously follow a shadow and not a reality. But those who have mastered both, like men equipped in full armor, soon acquire influence and attain their purpose.

What Vitruvius is saying is that architecture is about craftsmanship and technology. Also, in the second paragraph, if you interpret culture as an appreciation for the sensibilities and behaviors of your target audience this, drives directly to the point I am going to make.

The difference between a good application architect and a great application architect is the ability to craft an elegant solution in a way so as to delight the user.

Venustatis in software is the combination of culture (understanding your target users), craftsmanship (you desire to produce a elegant solution) and technology (the easy part).

Are there any cheap tricks you can use to determine if what you have built is beautiful? Yes.

The most simple and straight forward way to determine if your software is “beautiful” is to use it. Not for five minutes. Not for ten minutes. Use it for an hour or two hours straight if possible. You are building a tool that someone else will be using for long periods of time. If you can’t use it for an hour without hating yourself, odds are, neither can they. This will also give you a feel for the flow, need for short cuts and additional items that could be useful to the user.

These universal principles of good architecture: Durability, Utility and Beauty, can help us all be better at what we do.

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