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Top Ten Tips for Presenting Architecture Information

  • By Jeff Ryan
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3. Set the Context

The third tip is to set the context for the information being presented to your audience using the chosen approach.

When you are given a window of opportunity to present architecture information, you have to remember that the audience has not been fully immersed in the problem space you are in. Even though you may have met with them in the past, they may not immediately recall each occasion, what was discussed, the decisions made or the follow up items promised. It is your duty to remind them. I've seen so many meetings go awry because the meeting context wasn't established at the beginning. This often results in a déjà vu meeting. When meeting with the executive on blueprinting the second time, we reminded him of what he asked for, humbly admitted our past failing in addressing what he needed and our response.

Context also needs to be established for the information being presented. In writing or developing slides, it is helpful to show how your material relates to a continuum of time, industry benchmarks, trends and the like. This enables the audience to make comparisons and put things in the proper frame of reference.

A pattern which is often used to establish context is the master-detail pattern. The master view might be presented up front as an overall diagram, providing the context for the information and the detail areas to be examined. The consumer of the information will understand up front the areas to be discussed, the sequence that they will be discussed, and during the discussion which area of detail is being examined. This often helps the audience better consume the content being presented through a meeting, slides, or paper because they understand the bigger picture up front. The list of ten tips in the introduction to this article is an example of the master-detail pattern although a diagram was not used.

4. Increase the Information Resolution

The fourth tip is to increase the information resolution of the presentation materials. Information resolution is the amount of information conveyed on a given page. When increasing the resolution, it should be done using the least amount of ink possible.

One of the humorous portions of attending a seminar by Edward Tufte is his example of what Lincoln's Gettysburg Address would have been like if he used the PowerPoint wizard. This is an excellent case of an anti-pattern for presenting data and information and in decreasing information resolution. The reason why this approach fails is because the human mind can absorb vastly more information than is communicated on a typical PowerPoint page with six bullets per page and cheesy graphics which Tufte calls chart junk.

One of the reasons my one page summary on legal size paper worked was the executive quickly grasped the essential information and was hungry to learn more about the additional detail behind it. The handout itself provided the overall context of the blueprinting process we developed as well as much relevant detail. Although I didn't know it at the time, I dramatically increased the information resolution through this hand out as compared to the 80 page deck.

Initially, I stumbled upon this one page summary format. Now it has become a reusable pattern I've used to communicate architecture viewpoints, reference architecture, roles and responsibilities, solution continuum, etc. If you visit my office, you will see many such diagrams I've used to present architectural information. Each diagram is different, but tells a story by creating a scaled down thumbnail of relevant architecture artifacts and incorporating the graphics with text, thereby increasing the information resolution for the audience.

5. Show Data on a Universal Grid

The fifth tip I've learned is to show data on a universal grid. If the intended audience needs to repeatedly consume similar information, it is important to help them parse this information as easily as possible.

A universal grid pattern I regularly use is to show the conceptual diagram for an n-tier architecture with the same layers and background colors. Once the audience is familiar with the presentation, service, component and resource layers, it is easier for them to understand the application being depicted and how it is being modified. After the first presentation, they understand the layers and architecture principles behind depicting an application in this way. The one page diagram on architecture blueprinting included two scaled down n-tier layered diagrams. The executive quickly grasped what was being shown here.

N-Tier Layered Universal Grid Example
Figure 1 - N-Tier Layered Universal Grid Example

Some might say that depicting particular types of architecture diagrams across a universal grid stifles the creativity of the architect. I don't share this view. I would rather the architect channel their creativity into coming up with the best overall solution to meet short and long term business needs than to be fiddling with colors and diagram formats. That being said, sometimes the so called "universal" diagram doesn't depict the problem space or solution particularly well. In that case, it is perfectly acceptable to use another format.

6. Use Small Multiples

The sixth tip I've learned is to use small multiples. Small multiples are a series of small pictures, usually on one page, which graphically illustrate changes to an object or set of objects.

Part of the job of an architect is to develop a thoughtful plan for how a system will evolve over time. This presents a particular problem. When you add the dimension of time, it becomes difficult to show architecture diagrams in a way that the audience will understand the evolutionary steps.

Small multiples solve this problem. When I do architecture blueprinting, I need to show the current state, future state and transition plan of a system. I use the n- tier layered universal grid mentioned above to show each point in time view. Then I scale these diagrams down so the proposed transition can easily be understood on a single page.

Small Multiple Architecture Transition Plan Example
Figure 2 - Small Multiple Architecture Transition Plan Example

At the time I was speaking with the executive on blueprinting, I hadn't yet learned about small multiples nor how to apply them in a software architecture context. We walked him through pages of transition plan scenarios in the 80 page deck. I've recently started using small multiples for showing architectural transition plans on a single page. The insight that this provided the business and IT stakeholders was astounding, particularly because you could visually see the transition over time on one page and understand how systems targeted for sunset were being phased out as projects were being executed.

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This article was originally published on September 14, 2009

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