On Good Software

Good software is software that admits a simple mental model.

For all that I have observed and participated in plenty of discussions about one or another piece of software as to whether it is or is not good, I am surprised to say that I have never seen a single defining principle clearly articulated. Permit me, therefore, to propose this one:

Good software is software that admits a simple mental model.

Or, more precisely, software is better inasmuch as the simplicity-accuracy curve for models of it is more favorable.

Let us consider some generally avowed qualities of good software and see how they relate to mental models.

  • “Good software works.” One can view this desideratum as separate from any talk about mental models, and I would not argue very hard with such a one. But one can also view this desideratum as saying that good software is appropriate to model as “something that performs the task”—which is generally simpler than a detailed understanding of how that task is performed.

  • “Good software is robust [to unusual conditions].” This desideratum is about not needing to decorate one’s mental model of good software with various “if”s, “and”s, or “but”s about situations where it behaves strangely.

  • “Good software is maintainable.” What is software maintenance? Adjusting it in light of new desiderata or clarified understanding of existing desiderata. For this to be easy, the developer doing it must have an accurate mental model of the software being maintained, and of what will happen under various possible changes.

  • “Good software is reusable.” That is, the people in a position to reuse it have clear enough and good enough mental models of the software to reuse it. Reusability also has to do with generality, which is also the same sort of thing: General things are simple things, because complexity only arises when dealing with specifics.

  • “Good software is extensible.” This one is about decomposing the mental model of the task into additive capabilities, and making the structure of the software follow that decomposition in such a way that additional capabilities correspond directly to additional components. And such that those components have simple yet adequate interfaces to the rest of the system.

  • “Good software is debuggable.” Meaning that it produces sufficient information (e.g., logs) about how it operates that a developer can quickly isolate and repair any problem that arises. This is also about mental models: good software should provide the information needed to amplify the baseline mental model the developer has into a complete explanation of the (presumably undesirable) phenomenon they are trying to investigate at any particular point.

  • “Good software is secure.” This desideratum can also be viewed as being about matching mental models: pretty much all security violations are abuses that a developer or user implicitly assumes are not possible. The thing an exploit exploits is a discrepancy between how a given piece (or collection) of software actually operates and the meanings and implicit rules its legitimate users ascribe to it.

  • “Good software is modular.” That is, it is broken down into parts in such a way that it can profitably be modeled by modeling those parts individually and observing that their composition is fairly simple.

  • “Good software is testable.” That is, it should be easy to compare one’s mental model of the software (or some part of it) against the reality.

  • “Good software is efficient.” In one sense, calling this one as being about mental models is a bit of a stretch; but in another, it’s also about expectation matching: the software does not take appreciably more resources to perform its task than one would assume.

  • “Good software is scalable.” That is, it’s easy and favorable enough to get it to do more work by throwing more hardware at it. This is also about mental models: good software does not impede the performance of its task in a larger computational environment; or, alternately, is able to take advantage of the computational resources one would think it should.

  • “Good software is learnable.” That is, the simplicity/accuracy curve of mental models of the software is not too difficult to traverse towards greater accuracy.

  • “Good software has few bugs.” What is a bug? It is a discrepancy between a mental model and the object being modeled. Usually bugs arise because the model of composing some parts is “they work together smoothly” even when they do not; or, viewed another way, because the model of the rest of the world from the point of view of one component is not properly met by another.

  • “Good software is compatible [with the surrounding ecosystem].” This is again about the accuracy of an implicit mental model, namely that starting to use a piece of software will smoothly add a capability to one’s workflow/life, and interoperate flawlessly with everything else one is already using. If only users would appreciate how much work this is!

Which brings me to a critical corollary of my proposed principle: since simplicity is relative (to what one has already learned and internalized), the quality of software is also relative. In my own experience, examples abound: I happen not to think an application is any good unless it runs on GNU/Linux, though the majority seems to disagree; many programmers dismiss languages from the Lisp family as complex, because they learned infix rather than prefix notation in school; I think Emacs is a great text editor, but maybe that’s just because my fingers don’t know any other sets of keybindings.

Software is good in your eyes if you can easily form a good mental model of it.


Perhaps the relativity of the goodness of software is at the root of the classic distinction between the software design styles that have been named the New Jersey and MIT schools. Where the latter strives for software that is well modeled directly, regardless of the underlying platform, the former strives for software that is well modeled as a simple implementation on top of an underlying platform that is assumed to be worth understanding regardless.