Introduction to Software Engineering/Quality

In the context of software engineering, software quality measures how well software is designed (quality of design), and how well the software conforms to that design (quality of conformance),[1] although there are several different definitions. It is often described as the 'fitness for purpose' of a piece of software.

Whereas quality of conformance is concerned with implementation (see Software Quality Assurance), quality of design measures how valid the design and requirements are in creating a worthwhile product.[2]



One of the challenges of software quality is that "everyone feels they understand it".[3]

Software quality may be defined as conformance to explicitly stated functional and performance requirements, explicitly documented development standards and implicit characteristics that are expected of all professionally developed software.

The three key points in this definition:

  1. Software requirements are the foundations from which quality is measured.

    Lack of conformance to requirement is lack of quality.

  2. Specified standards define a set of development criteria that guide the manager is software engineering.

    If criteria are not followed lack of quality will usually result.

  3. A set of implicit requirements often goes unmentioned, for example ease of use, maintainability etc.

    If software confirms to its explicit requirement but fails to meet implicit requirements, software quality is suspected.

A definition in Steve McConnell's Code Complete divides software into two pieces: internal and external quality characteristics. External quality characteristics are those parts of a product that face its users, where internal quality characteristics are those that do not.[4]

Another definition by Dr. Tom DeMarco says "a product's quality is a function of how much it changes the world for the better."[5] This can be interpreted as meaning that user satisfaction is more important than anything in determining software quality.[1]

Another definition, coined by Gerald Weinberg in Quality Software Management: Systems Thinking, is "Quality is value to some person." This definition stresses that quality is inherently subjective - different people will experience the quality of the same software very differently. One strength of this definition is the questions it invites software teams to consider, such as "Who are the people we want to value our software?" and "What will be valuable to them?"



Software product quality

  • Correctness
  • Product quality
    • conformance to requirements or program specification; related to Reliability
  • Scalability
  • Completeness
  • Absence of bugs
  • Fault-tolerance
    • Extensibility
    • Maintainability
  • Documentation

The Consortium for IT Software Quality (CISQ) was launched in 2009 to standardize the measurement of software product quality. The Consortium's goal is to bring together industry executives from Global 2000 IT organizations, system integrators, outsourcers, and package vendors to jointly address the challenge of standardizing the measurement of IT software quality and to promote a market-based ecosystem to support its deployment.

Source code quality


A computer has no concept of "well-written" source code. However, from a human point of view source code can be written in a way that has an effect on the effort needed to comprehend its behavior. Many source code programming style guides, which often stress readability and usually language-specific conventions are aimed at reducing the cost of source code maintenance. Some of the issues that affect code quality include:

  • Readability
  • Ease of maintenance, testing, debugging, fixing, modification and portability
  • Low complexity
  • Low resource consumption: memory, CPU
  • Number of compilation or lint warnings
  • Robust input validation and error handling, established by software fault injection

Methods to improve the quality:

  • Refactoring
  • Code Inspection or software review
  • Documenting code

Software reliability


Software reliability is an important facet of software quality. It is defined as "the probability of failure-free operation of a computer program in a specified environment for a specified time".[6]

One of reliability's distinguishing characteristics is that it is objective, measurable, and can be estimated, whereas much of software quality is subjective criteria.[7] This distinction is especially important in the discipline of Software Quality Assurance. These measured criteria are typically called software metrics.



With software embedded into many devices today, software failure has caused more than inconvenience. Software errors have even caused human fatalities. The causes have ranged from poorly designed user interfaces to direct programming errors. An example of a programming error that lead to multiple deaths is discussed in Dr. Leveson's paper [1] (PDF). This has resulted in requirements for development of some types software. In the United States, both the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have requirements for software development.

Goal of reliability


The need for a means to objectively determine software reliability comes from the desire to apply the techniques of contemporary engineering fields to the development of software. That desire is a result of the common observation, by both lay-persons and specialists, that computer software does not work the way it ought to. In other words, software is seen to exhibit undesirable behaviour, up to and including outright failure, with consequences for the data which is processed, the machinery on which the software runs, and by extension the people and materials which those machines might negatively affect. The more critical the application of the software to economic and production processes, or to life-sustaining systems, the more important is the need to assess the software's reliability.

Regardless of the criticality of any single software application, it is also more and more frequently observed that software has penetrated deeply into most every aspect of modern life through the technology we use. It is only expected that this infiltration will continue, along with an accompanying dependency on the software by the systems which maintain our society. As software becomes more and more crucial to the operation of the systems on which we depend, the argument goes, it only follows that the software should offer a concomitant level of dependability. In other words, the software should behave in the way it is intended, or even better, in the way it should.

Challenge of reliability


The circular logic of the preceding sentence is not accidental—it is meant to illustrate a fundamental problem in the issue of measuring software reliability, which is the difficulty of determining, in advance, exactly how the software is intended to operate. The problem seems to stem from a common conceptual error in the consideration of software, which is that software in some sense takes on a role which would otherwise be filled by a human being. This is a problem on two levels. Firstly, most modern software performs work which a human could never perform, especially at the high level of reliability that is often expected from software in comparison to humans. Secondly, software is fundamentally incapable of most of the mental capabilities of humans which separate them from mere mechanisms: qualities such as adaptability, general-purpose knowledge, a sense of conceptual and functional context, and common sense.

Nevertheless, most software programs could safely be considered to have a particular, even singular purpose. If the possibility can be allowed that said purpose can be well or even completely defined, it should present a means for at least considering objectively whether the software is, in fact, reliable, by comparing the expected outcome to the actual outcome of running the software in a given environment, with given data. Unfortunately, it is still not known whether it is possible to exhaustively determine either the expected outcome or the actual outcome of the entire set of possible environment and input data to a given program, without which it is probably impossible to determine the program's reliability with any certainty.

However, various attempts are in the works to attempt to rein in the vastness of the space of software's environmental and input variables, both for actual programs and theoretical descriptions of programs. Such attempts to improve software reliability can be applied at different stages of a program's development, in the case of real software. These stages principally include: requirements, design, programming, testing, and runtime evaluation. The study of theoretical software reliability is predominantly concerned with the concept of correctness, a mathematical field of computer science which is an outgrowth of language and automata theory.

Reliability in program development




A program cannot be expected to work as desired if the developers of the program do not, in fact, know the program's desired behaviour in advance, or if they cannot at least determine its desired behaviour in parallel with development, in sufficient detail. What level of detail is considered sufficient is hotly debated. The idea of perfect detail is attractive, but may be impractical, if not actually impossible. This is because the desired behaviour tends to change as the possible range of the behaviour is determined through actual attempts, or more accurately, failed attempts, to achieve it.

Whether a program's desired behaviour can be successfully specified in advance is a moot point if the behaviour cannot be specified at all, and this is the focus of attempts to formalize the process of creating requirements for new software projects. In situ with the formalization effort is an attempt to help inform non-specialists, particularly non-programmers, who commission software projects without sufficient knowledge of what computer software is in fact capable. Communicating this knowledge is made more difficult by the fact that, as hinted above, even programmers cannot always know in advance what is actually possible for software in advance of trying.



While requirements are meant to specify what a program should do, design is meant, at least at a high level, to specify how the program should do it. The usefulness of design is also questioned by some, but those who look to formalize the process of ensuring reliability often offer good software design processes as the most significant means to accomplish it. Software design usually involves the use of more abstract and general means of specifying the parts of the software and what they do. As such, it can be seen as a way to break a large program down into many smaller programs, such that those smaller pieces together do the work of the whole program.

The purposes of high-level design are as follows. It separates what are considered to be problems of architecture, or overall program concept and structure, from problems of actual coding, which solve problems of actual data processing. It applies additional constraints to the development process by narrowing the scope of the smaller software components, and thereby—it is hoped—removing variables which could increase the likelihood of programming errors. It provides a program template, including the specification of interfaces, which can be shared by different teams of developers working on disparate parts, such that they can know in advance how each of their contributions will interface with those of the other teams. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, it specifies the program independently of the implementation language or languages, thereby removing language-specific biases and limitations which would otherwise creep into the design, perhaps unwittingly on the part of programmer-designers.



The history of computer programming language development can often be best understood in the light of attempts to master the complexity of computer programs, which otherwise becomes more difficult to understand in proportion (perhaps exponentially) to the size of the programs. (Another way of looking at the evolution of programming languages is simply as a way of getting the computer to do more and more of the work, but this may be a different way of saying the same thing). Lack of understanding of a program's overall structure and functionality is a sure way to fail to detect errors in the program, and thus the use of better languages should, conversely, reduce the number of errors by enabling a better understanding.

Improvements in languages tend to provide incrementally what software design has attempted to do in one fell swoop: consider the software at ever greater levels of abstraction. Such inventions as statement, sub-routine, file, class, template, library, component and more have allowed the arrangement of a program's parts to be specified using abstractions such as layers, hierarchies and modules, which provide structure at different granularities, so that from any point of view the program's code can be imagined to be orderly and comprehensible.

In addition, improvements in languages have enabled more exact control over the shape and use of data elements, culminating in the abstract data type. These data types can be specified to a very fine degree, including how and when they are accessed, and even the state of the data before and after it is accessed..

Software Build and Deployment


Many programming languages such as C and Java require the program "source code" to be translated in to a form that can be executed by a computer. This translation is done by a program called a compiler. Additional operations may be involved to associate, bind, link or package files together in order to create a usable runtime configuration of the software application. The totality of the compiling and assembly process is generically called "building" the software.

The software build is critical to software quality because if any of the generated files are incorrect the software build is likely to fail. And, if the incorrect version of a program is inadvertently used, then testing can lead to false results.

Software builds are typically done in work area unrelated to the runtime area, such as the application server. For this reason, a deployment step is needed to physically transfer the software build products to the runtime area. The deployment procedure may also involve technical parameters, which, if set incorrectly, can also prevent software testing from beginning. For example, a Java application server may have options for parent-first or parent-last class loading. Using the incorrect parameter can cause the application to fail to execute on the application server.

The technical activities supporting software quality including build, deployment, change control and reporting are collectively known as Software configuration management. A number of software tools have arisen to help meet the challenges of configuration management including file control tools and build control tools.



Software testing, when done correctly, can increase overall software quality of conformance by testing that the product conforms to its requirements.[8] Testing includes, but is not limited to:

  1. Unit Testing
  2. Functional Testing
  3. Regression Testing
  4. Performance Testing
  5. Failover Testing
  6. Usability Testing

A number of agile methodologies use testing early in the development cycle to ensure quality in their products. For example, the test-driven development practice, where tests are written before the code they will test, is used in Extreme Programming to ensure quality.



runtime reliability determinations are similar to tests, but go beyond simple confirmation of behaviour to the evaluation of qualities such as performance and interoperability with other code or particular hardware configurations.

Software quality factors


A software quality factor is a non-functional requirement for a software program which is not called up by the customer's contract, but nevertheless is a desirable requirement which enhances the quality of the software program. Note that none of these factors are binary; that is, they are not “either you have it or you don’t” traits. Rather, they are characteristics that one seeks to maximize in one’s software to optimize its quality. So rather than asking whether a software product “has” factor x, ask instead the degree to which it does (or does not).

Some software quality factors are listed here:

Clarity of purpose. This goes further than just a statement of purpose; all of the design and user documentation must be clearly written so that it is easily understandable. This is obviously subjective in that the user context must be taken into account: for instance, if the software product is to be used by software engineers it is not required to be understandable to the layman.
Presence of all constituent parts, with each part fully developed. This means that if the code calls a subroutine from an external library, the software package must provide reference to that library and all required parameters must be passed. All required input data must also be available.
Minimization of excessive or redundant information or processing. This is important where memory capacity is limited, and it is generally considered good practice to keep lines of code to a minimum. It can be improved by replacing repeated functionality by one subroutine or function which achieves that functionality. It also applies to documents.
Ability to be run well and easily on multiple computer configurations. Portability can mean both between different hardware—such as running on a PC as well as a smartphone—and between different operating systems—such as running on both Mac OS X and GNU/Linux.
Uniformity in notation, symbology, appearance, and terminology within itself.
Propensity to facilitate updates to satisfy new requirements. Thus the software product that is maintainable should be well-documented, should not be complex, and should have spare capacity for memory, storage and processor utilization and other resources.
Disposition to support acceptance criteria and evaluation of performance. Such a characteristic must be built-in during the design phase if the product is to be easily testable; a complex design leads to poor testability.
Convenience and practicality of use. This is affected by such things as the human-computer interface. The component of the software that has most impact on this is the user interface (UI), which for best usability is usually graphical (i.e. a GUI).
Ability to be expected to perform its intended functions satisfactorily. This implies a time factor in that a reliable product is expected to perform correctly over a period of time. It also encompasses environmental considerations in that the product is required to perform correctly in whatever conditions it finds itself (sometimes termed robustness).
Fulfillment of purpose without waste of resources, such as memory, space and processor utilization, network bandwidth, time, etc.
Ability to protect data against unauthorized access and to withstand malicious or inadvertent interference with its operations. Besides the presence of appropriate security mechanisms such as authentication, access control and encryption, security also implies resilience in the face of malicious, intelligent and adaptive attackers.

Measurement of software quality factors


There are varied perspectives within the field on measurement. There are a great many measures that are valued by some professionals—or in some contexts, that are decried as harmful by others. Some believe that quantitative measures of software quality are essential. Others believe that contexts where quantitative measures are useful are quite rare, and so prefer qualitative measures. Several leaders in the field of software testing have written about the difficulty of measuring what we truly want to measure well.[9][10]

One example of a popular metric is the number of faults encountered in the software. Software that contains few faults is considered by some to have higher quality than software that contains many faults. Questions that can help determine the usefulness of this metric in a particular context include:

  1. What constitutes “many faults?” Does this differ depending upon the purpose of the software (e.g., blogging software vs. navigational software)? Does this take into account the size and complexity of the software?
  2. Does this account for the importance of the bugs (and the importance to the stakeholders of the people those bugs bug)? Does one try to weight this metric by the severity of the fault, or the incidence of users it affects? If so, how? And if not, how does one know that 100 faults discovered is better than 1000?
  3. If the count of faults being discovered is shrinking, how do I know what that means? For example, does that mean that the product is now higher quality than it was before? Or that this is a smaller/less ambitious change than before? Or that fewer tester-hours have gone into the project than before? Or that this project was tested by less skilled testers than before? Or that the team has discovered that fewer faults reported is in their interest?

This last question points to an especially difficult one to manage. All software quality metrics are in some sense measures of human behavior, since humans create software.[9] If a team discovers that they will benefit from a drop in the number of reported bugs, there is a strong tendency for the team to start reporting fewer defects. That may mean that email begins to circumvent the bug tracking system, or that four or five bugs get lumped into one bug report, or that testers learn not to report minor annoyances. The difficulty is measuring what we mean to measure, without creating incentives for software programmers and testers to consciously or unconsciously “game” the measurements.

Software quality factors cannot be measured because of their vague definitions. It is necessary to find measurements, or metrics, which can be used to quantify them as non-functional requirements. For example, reliability is a software quality factor, but cannot be evaluated in its own right. However, there are related attributes to reliability, which can indeed be measured. Some such attributes are mean time to failure, rate of failure occurrence, and availability of the system. Similarly, an attribute of portability is the number of target-dependent statements in a program.

A scheme that could be used for evaluating software quality factors is given below. For every characteristic, there are a set of questions which are relevant to that characteristic. Some type of scoring formula could be developed based on the answers to these questions, from which a measurement of the characteristic can be obtained.



Are variable names descriptive of the physical or functional property represented? Do uniquely recognisable functions contain adequate comments so that their purpose is clear? Are deviations from forward logical flow adequately commented? Are all elements of an array functionally related?....



Are all necessary components available? Does any process fail for lack of resources or programming? Are all potential pathways through the code accounted for, including proper error handling?



Is all code reachable? Is any code redundant? How many statements within loops could be placed outside the loop, thus reducing computation time? Are branch decisions too complex?



Does the program depend upon system or library routines unique to a particular installation? Have machine-dependent statements been flagged and commented? Has dependency on internal bit representation of alphanumeric or special characters been avoided? How much effort would be required to transfer the program from one hardware/software system or environment to another?



Is one variable name used to represent different logical or physical entities in the program? Does the program contain only one representation for any given physical or mathematical constant? Are functionally similar arithmetic expressions similarly constructed? Is a consistent scheme used for indentation, nomenclature, the color palette, fonts and other visual elements?



Has some memory capacity been reserved for future expansion? Is the design cohesive—i.e., does each module have distinct, recognizable functionality? Does the software allow for a change in data structures (object-oriented designs are more likely to allow for this)? If the code is procedure-based (rather than object-oriented), is a change likely to require restructuring the main program, or just a module?



Are complex structures employed in the code? Does the detailed design contain clear pseudo-code? Is the pseudo-code at a higher level of abstraction than the code? If tasking is used in concurrent designs, are schemes available for providing adequate test cases?



Is a GUI used? Is there adequate on-line help? Is a user manual provided? Are meaningful error messages provided?



Are loop indexes range-tested? Is input data checked for range errors? Is divide-by-zero avoided? Is exception handling provided? It is the probability that the software performs its intended functions correctly in a specified period of time under stated operation conditions, but there could also be a problem with the requirement document...



Have functions been optimized for speed? Have repeatedly used blocks of code been formed into subroutines? Has the program been checked for memory leaks or overflow errors?



Does the software protect itself and its data against unauthorized access and use? Does it allow its operator to enforce security policies? Are security mechanisms appropriate, adequate and correctly implemented? Can the software withstand attacks that can be anticipated in its intended environment?

User's perspective


In addition to the technical qualities of software, the end user's experience also determines the quality of software. This aspect of software quality is called usability. It is hard to quantify the usability of a given software product. Some important questions to be asked are:

  • Is the user interface intuitive (self-explanatory/self-documenting)?
  • Is it easy to perform simple operations?
  • Is it feasible to perform complex operations?
  • Does the software give sensible error messages?
  • Do widgets behave as expected?
  • Is the software well documented?
  • Is the user interface responsive or too slow?

Also, the availability of (free or paid) support may factor into the usability of the software.


  1. a b Pressman 2005, p. 746
  2. Pressman 2005, p. 388
  3. Crosby, P., Quality is Free, McGraw-Hill, 1979
  4. McConnell 1993, p. 558
  5. DeMarco, T., Management Can Make Quality (Im)possible, Cutter IT Summit, Boston, April 1999
  6. J.D. Musa, A. Iannino, and K. Okumoto, Engineering and Managing Software with Reliability Measures, McGraw-Hill, 1987
  7. Pressman 2005, p. 762
  8. ISTQB - What is software testing?
  9. a b Cem Kaner
  10. Douglass Hoffman
  • McConnell, Steve (1993), Code Complete (First ed.), Microsoft Press
  • Pressman, Scott (2005), Software Engineering: A Practitioner's Approach (Sixth, International ed.), McGraw-Hill Education

Further reading