Let’s face it, as a senior engineer a common task is to lead design reviews at different stages of a system’s life-cycle. This inevitably leads to questions about documenting designs, and specifically design decisions. Over time I’ve come to realize that at each decision point, or discussion of a feature, I find myself asking for the same set of information.

However, recently as I write another design review guidelines document I realized that this common set of four topics comes with a rather helpful acronym – CARE. So why should you, the reader, care about my neat realization? If nothing else, I would bet you already consider these items in technical discussions and so you get to give it a name.

What is CARE?

  • Constraints — a set of restrictions, or limitations, within which a system must operate. For example:

    • The system must operate within pre-defined SLA’s (latency, availability, …).
    • The system must not increase operational costs.
    • The system must be operable on a set of platforms.
    • The system must pass security review(s).
    • The system must launch within a given time-frame.
  • Assumptions — the set of things we think we know, which typically fall into the following categories.

    • The way we think something works.
    • The way someone told us that something works; which in turn may be base only on what that someone thinks it works, and so on.
    • What a user said that they want.
    • A set of beliefs we take for granted as facts (Quicksort always wins).
    • A set of biases based upon much of the above, but also including inter-personal and unconscious biases.
  • Risks — the set of known concerns that we need to address or mitigate. It is common for risks to derive from the last two items; for example, some constraints may require a more complex design than would otherwise suffice, or an assumption may prove untrue and cause re-work of a design. Risks may be non-technical, and we do have a professional obligation (see Professional Practice) to ensure that we raise those as we see them.

  • Effort — the enumeration of resources required to accomplish the design, and operate/maintain the resulting system(s). While it may make sense to expand effort to include cost I believe this is invalid. If a cost budget, or calendar deadline is the focus of the design it is a constraint. This does not mean we do not consider costs, it should always be a part of our professional practice to carefully balance the costs (and other impacts) of our work.

Using CARE in design decisions

When faced with a major design decision it is common to document them in a simple manner:

  • Problem — what’s new or broken.
  • Potential Solutions — a set of choices, with pros and cons.
  • Decision — what did you decide, and why (when you get to that point).

CARE can apply in each of these sections, although the focus is somewhat different in each.

  • Problem — What constraints does the existing system impose on our choices? What assumptions do we have about the current state? What risks exist in the current system? What effort are we expending to keep the current status quo?
  • Potential Solutions — What additional constraints do they impose on us? What assumptions do we have about the solution and how it works? What risks do we see with the solution, and what effort will we need to expend to use it?
  • Decision — The CARE attributes here are usually those associated with the option expressed in the potential solutions.

Using CARE in discussions

While any one of the CARE attributes may actually be the focus of a technical discussion, I tend to use them as a framework to ensure I’ve looked at things from all four perspectives.

If nothing else, I believe they provide a good set of terms and terminology, both the four attributes as well as a set of derived terms. We have already discussed how constraints include SLAs, costs, time, and so forth. In a similar way assumptions may be fundamental beliefs, biases, or transient beliefs – this system is way faster than that one.

In the case of risks and effort, the terminology used will be much the same but applied in a different manner.

Professional Practice

From the ACM Software Engineering Code of Ethics and Professional Practice, Principal 3 (PRODUCT):

3.01. Strive for high quality, acceptable cost and a reasonable schedule, ensuring significant tradeoffs are clear to and accepted by the employer and the client, and are available for consideration by the user and the public.

3.09. Ensure realistic quantitative estimates of cost, scheduling, personnel, quality and outcomes on any project on which they work or propose to work and provide an uncertainty assessment of these estimates.

Principal 8 (SELF):

8.02. Improve their ability to create safe, reliable, and useful quality software at reasonable cost and within a reasonable time.