The Smart UI 'Anti-Pattern'

The Smart UI "Anti-Pattern"

. . . That sums up the widely accepted LAYERED ARCHITECTURE pattern for object applications. But this separation of UI, application, and domain is so often attempted and so seldom accomplished that its negation deserves a discussion in its own right.

Many software projects do take and should continue to take a much less sophisticated design approach that I call the SMART UI. But SMART UI is an alternate, mutually exclusive fork in the road, incompatible with the approach of domain-driven design. If that road is taken, most of what is in this book is not applicable. My interest is in the situations where the SMART UI does not apply, which is why I call it, with tongue in cheek, an "anti-pattern." Discussing it here provides a useful contrast and will help clarify the circumstances that justify the more difficult path taken in the rest of the book.

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A project needs to deliver simple functionality, dominated by data entry and display, with few business rules. Staff is not composed of advanced object modelers.

If an unsophisticated team with a simple project decides to try a MODEL-DRIVEN DESIGN with LAYERED ARCHITECTURE, it will face a difficult learning curve. Team members will have to master complex new technologies and stumble through the process of learning object modeling (which is challenging, even with the help of this book!). The overhead of managing infrastructure and layers makes very simple tasks take longer. Simple projects come with short time lines and modest expectations. Long before the team completes the assigned task, much less demonstrates the exciting possibilities of its approach, the project will have been canceled.

Even if the team is given more time, the team members are likely to fail to master the techniques without expert help. And in the end, if they do surmount these challenges, they will have produced a simple system. Rich capabilities were never requested.

A more experienced team would not face the same trade-offs. Seasoned developers could flatten the learning curve and compress the time needed to manage the layers. Domain-driven design pays off best for ambitious projects, and it does require strong skills. Not all projects are ambitious. Not all project teams can muster those skills.

Therefore, when circumstances warrant:

Put all the business logic into the user interface. Chop the application into small functions and implement them as separate user interfaces, embedding the business rules into them. Use a relational database as a shared repository of the data. Use the most automated UI building and visual programming tools available.

Heresy! The gospel (as advocated everywhere, including else-where in this book) is that domain and UI should be separate. In fact, it is difficult to apply any of the methods discussed later in this book without that separation, and so this SMART UI can be considered an "anti-pattern" in the context of domain-driven design. Yet it is a legitimate pattern in some other contexts. In truth, there are advantages to the SMART UI, and there are situations where it works best—which partially accounts for why it is so common. Considering it here helps us understand why we need to separate application from domain and, importantly, when we might not want to.


  • Productivity is high and immediate for simple applications.

  • Less capable developers can work this way with little training.

  • Even deficiencies in requirements analysis can be overcome by releasing a prototype to users and then quickly changing the product to fit their requests.

  • Applications are decoupled from each other, so that delivery schedules of small modules can be planned relatively accurately. Expanding the system with additional, simple behavior can be easy.

  • Relational databases work well and provide integration at the data level.

  • 4GL tools work well.

  • When applications are handed off, maintenance programmers will be able to quickly redo portions they can't figure out, because the effects of the changes should be localized to each particular UI.


  • Integration of applications is difficult except through the database.

  • There is no reuse of behavior and no abstraction of the business problem. Business rules have to be duplicated in each operation to which they apply.

  • Rapid prototyping and iteration reach a natural limit because the lack of abstraction limits refactoring options.

  • Complexity buries you quickly, so the growth path is strictly toward additional simple applications. There is no graceful path to richer behavior.

If this pattern is applied consciously, a team can avoid taking on a great deal of overhead required by other approaches. It is a common mistake to undertake a sophisticated design approach that the team isn't committed to carrying all the way through. Another common, costly mistake is to build a complex infrastructure and use industrial-strength tools for a project that doesn't need them.

Most flexible languages (such as Java) are overkill for these applications and will cost dearly. A 4GL-style tool is the way to go.

Remember, one of the consequences of this pattern is that you can't migrate to another design approach except by replacing entire applications. Just using a general-purpose language such as Java won't really put you in a position to later abandon the SMART UI, so if you've chosen that path, you should choose development tools geared to it. Don't bother hedging your bet. Just using a flexible language doesn't create a flexible system, but it may well produce an expensive one.

By the same token, a team committed to a MODEL-DRIVEN DESIGN needs to design that way from the outset. Of course, even experienced project teams with big ambitions have to start with simple functionality and work their way up through successive iterations. But those first tentative steps will be MODEL-DRIVEN with an isolated domain layer, or the project will most likely be stuck with a SMART UI. The SMART UI is discussed only to clarify why and when a pattern such as LAYERED ARCHITECTURE is needed in order to isolate a domain layer.

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There are other solutions in between SMART UI and LAYERED ARCHITECTURE. For example, Fowler (2002) describes the TRANSACTION SCRIPT, which separates UI from application but does not provide for an object model. The bottom line is this: If the architecture isolates the domain-related code in a way that allows a cohesive domain design loosely coupled to the rest of the system, then that architecture can probably support domain-driven design.

Other development styles have their place, but you must accept varying limits on complexity and flexibility. Failing to decouple the domain design can really be disastrous in certain settings. If you have a complex application and are committing to MODEL-DRIVEN DESIGN, bite the bullet, get the necessary experts, and avoid the SMART UI.

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