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Why Do Our Designs Go Wrong?

What comes to mind when you hear the word chaos? Perhaps you think of a noisy stock exchange, or your kitchen in the morning—​everything confused and jumbled. When you think of the word order, perhaps you think of an empty room, serene and calm. For scientists, though, chaos is characterized by homogeneity (sameness), and order by complexity (difference).

For example, a well-tended garden is a highly ordered system. Gardeners define boundaries with paths and fences, and they mark out flower beds or vegetable patches. Over time, the garden evolves, growing richer and thicker; but without deliberate effort, the garden will run wild. Weeds and grasses will choke out other plants, covering over the paths, until eventually every part looks the same again—​wild and unmanaged.

Software systems, too, tend toward chaos. When we first start building a new system, we have grand ideas that our code will be clean and well ordered, but over time we find that it gathers cruft and edge cases and ends up a confusing morass of manager classes and util modules. We find that our sensibly layered architecture has collapsed into itself like an oversoggy trifle. Chaotic software systems are characterized by a sameness of function: API handlers that have domain knowledge and send email and perform logging; "business logic" classes that perform no calculations but do perform I/O; and everything coupled to everything else so that changing any part of the system becomes fraught with danger. This is so common that software engineers have their own term for chaos: the Big Ball of Mud antipattern (A real-life dependency diagram (source: "Enterprise Dependency: Big Ball of Yarn" by Alex Papadimoulis)).

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Figure 1. A real-life dependency diagram (source: "Enterprise Dependency: Big Ball of Yarn" by Alex Papadimoulis)
A big ball of mud is the natural state of software in the same way that wilderness is the natural state of your garden. It takes energy and direction to prevent the collapse.

Fortunately, the techniques to avoid creating a big ball of mud aren’t complex.

Encapsulation and Abstractions

Encapsulation and abstraction are tools that we all instinctively reach for as programmers, even if we don’t all use these exact words. Allow us to dwell on them for a moment, since they are a recurring background theme of the book.

The term encapsulation covers two closely related ideas: simplifying behavior and hiding data. In this discussion, we’re using the first sense. We encapsulate behavior by identifying a task that needs to be done in our code and giving that task to a well-defined object or function. We call that object or function an abstraction.

Take a look at the following two snippets of Python code:

Do a search with urllib
import json
from urllib.request import urlopen
from urllib.parse import urlencode

params = dict(q='Sausages', format='json')
handle = urlopen('' + '?' + urlencode(params))
raw_text ='utf8')
parsed = json.loads(raw_text)

results = parsed['RelatedTopics']
for r in results:
    if 'Text' in r:
        print(r['FirstURL'] + ' - ' + r['Text'])
Do a search with requests
import requests

params = dict(q='Sausages', format='json')
parsed = requests.get('', params=params).json()

results = parsed['RelatedTopics']
for r in results:
    if 'Text' in r:
        print(r['FirstURL'] + ' - ' + r['Text'])

Both code listings do the same thing: they submit form-encoded values to a URL in order to use a search engine API. But the second is simpler to read and understand because it operates at a higher level of abstraction.

We can take this one step further still by identifying and naming the task we want the code to perform for us and using an even higher-level abstraction to make it explicit:

Do a search with the duckduckgo client library
import duckduckpy
for r in duckduckpy.query('Sausages').related_topics:
    print(r.first_url, ' - ', r.text)

Encapsulating behavior by using abstractions is a powerful tool for making code more expressive, more testable, and easier to maintain.

In the literature of the object-oriented (OO) world, one of the classic characterizations of this approach is called responsibility-driven design; it uses the words roles and responsibilities rather than tasks. The main point is to think about code in terms of behavior, rather than in terms of data or algorithms.[1]
Abstractions and ABCs

In a traditional OO language like Java or C#, you might use an abstract base class (ABC) or an interface to define an abstraction. In Python you can (and we sometimes do) use ABCs, but you can also happily rely on duck typing.

The abstraction can just mean "the public API of the thing you’re using"—a function name plus some arguments, for example.

Most of the patterns in this book involve choosing an abstraction, so you’ll see plenty of examples in each chapter. In addition, [chapter_03_abstractions] specifically discusses some general heuristics for choosing abstractions.


Encapsulation and abstraction help us by hiding details and protecting the consistency of our data, but we also need to pay attention to the interactions between our objects and functions. When one function, module, or object uses another, we say that the one depends on the other. These dependencies form a kind of network or graph.

In a big ball of mud, the dependencies are out of control (as you saw in A real-life dependency diagram (source: "Enterprise Dependency: Big Ball of Yarn" by Alex Papadimoulis)). Changing one node of the graph becomes difficult because it has the potential to affect many other parts of the system. Layered architectures are one way of tackling this problem. In a layered architecture, we divide our code into discrete categories or roles, and we introduce rules about which categories of code can call each other.

One of the most common examples is the three-layered architecture shown in Layered architecture.

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Figure 2. Layered architecture
[ditaa, apwp_0002]
|                Presentation Layer                  |
|                 Business Logic                     |
|                  Database Layer                    |

Layered architecture is perhaps the most common pattern for building business software. In this model we have user-interface components, which could be a web page, an API, or a command line; these user-interface components communicate with a business logic layer that contains our business rules and our workflows; and finally, we have a database layer that’s responsible for storing and retrieving data.

For the rest of this book, we’re going to be systematically turning this model inside out by obeying one simple principle.

The Dependency Inversion Principle

You might be familiar with the dependency inversion principle (DIP) already, because it’s the D in SOLID.[2]

Unfortunately, we can’t illustrate the DIP by using three tiny code listings as we did for encapsulation. However, the whole of [part1] is essentially a worked example of implementing the DIP throughout an application, so you’ll get your fill of concrete examples.

In the meantime, we can talk about DIP’s formal definition:

  1. High-level modules should not depend on low-level modules. Both should depend on abstractions.

  2. Abstractions should not depend on details. Instead, details should depend on abstractions.

But what does this mean? Let’s take it bit by bit.

High-level modules are the code that your organization really cares about. Perhaps you work for a pharmaceutical company, and your high-level modules deal with patients and trials. Perhaps you work for a bank, and your high-level modules manage trades and exchanges. The high-level modules of a software system are the functions, classes, and packages that deal with our real-world concepts.

By contrast, low-level modules are the code that your organization doesn’t care about. It’s unlikely that your HR department gets excited about filesystems or network sockets. It’s not often that you discuss SMTP, HTTP, or AMQP with your finance team. For our nontechnical stakeholders, these low-level concepts aren’t interesting or relevant. All they care about is whether the high-level concepts work correctly. If payroll runs on time, your business is unlikely to care whether that’s a cron job or a transient function running on Kubernetes.

Depends on doesn’t mean imports or calls, necessarily, but rather a more general idea that one module knows about or needs another module.

And we’ve mentioned abstractions already: they’re simplified interfaces that encapsulate behavior, in the way that our duckduckgo module encapsulated a search engine’s API.

All problems in computer science can be solved by adding another level of indirection.

— David Wheeler

So the first part of the DIP says that our business code shouldn’t depend on technical details; instead, both should use abstractions.

Why? Broadly, because we want to be able to change them independently of each other. High-level modules should be easy to change in response to business needs. Low-level modules (details) are often, in practice, harder to change: think about refactoring to change a function name versus defining, testing, and deploying a database migration to change a column name. We don’t want business logic changes to slow down because they are closely coupled to low-level infrastructure details. But, similarly, it is important to be able to change your infrastructure details when you need to (think about sharding a database, for example), without needing to make changes to your business layer. Adding an abstraction between them (the famous extra layer of indirection) allows the two to change (more) independently of each other.

The second part is even more mysterious. "Abstractions should not depend on details" seems clear enough, but "Details should depend on abstractions" is hard to imagine. How can we have an abstraction that doesn’t depend on the details it’s abstracting? By the time we get to [chapter_04_service_layer], we’ll have a concrete example that should make this all a bit clearer.

A Place for All Our Business Logic: The Domain Model

But before we can turn our three-layered architecture inside out, we need to talk more about that middle layer: the high-level modules or business logic. One of the most common reasons that our designs go wrong is that business logic becomes spread throughout the layers of our application, making it hard to identify, understand, and change.

[chapter_01_domain_model] shows how to build a business layer with a Domain Model pattern. The rest of the patterns in [part1] show how we can keep the domain model easy to change and free of low-level concerns by choosing the right abstractions and continuously applying the DIP.

1. If you’ve come across class-responsibility-collaborator (CRC) cards, they’re driving at the same thing: thinking about responsibilities helps you decide how to split things up.
2. SOLID is an acronym for Robert C. Martin’s five principles of object-oriented design: single responsibility, open for extension but closed for modification, Liskov substitution, interface segregation, and dependency inversion. See "S.O.L.I.D: The First 5 Principles of Object-Oriented Design" by Samuel Oloruntoba.