Introduction to Software Engineering/UML/Introduction


Software engineers speak a funny language called Unified Modeling Language, or UML for short. Like a musician has to learn musical notation before being able to play piano, we need to learn UML before we are able to engineer software. UML is useful in many parts of the software engineering process, for instance: planning, architecture, documentation, or reverse engineering. Therefore, it is worth our efforts to know it.

Designing software is a little like writing a screenplay for a Hollywood movie. The characteristics, actions, and interactions of the characters are carefully planned, as is the relevant components of their environment. As an introductory example, consider our friend Bill, a customer, who is at a restaurant for dinner. His waiter is Linus, who takes the orders and brings the food. In the kitchen is Larry, the cook. Steve is the cashier. In this way, we've provided useful and easily accessed information about the operation of a restaurant in the screenplay.

Use Case DiagramEdit

The use case model is a representation of the system's intended functions and its environment.The first thing a software engineer does is to draw a Use Case diagram. All the actors are represented by little stick figures, all the actions are represented by ovals and are called use cases. The actors and use cases are connected by lines. Very often there is also one or more system boundaries. Actors, which usually are not part of the system, are drawn outside the system area.

Use Case diagrams are very simple, so even managers can understand them. But they are very helpful in understanding the system to be designed. They should list all parties involved in the system and all major actions that the system should be able to perform. The important thing about them is that you don't forget anything, it is less important that they are super-detailed, for this we have other diagram types.

Restaurant Use Case Diagram.

Activity DiagramEdit

Next, we will draw an Activity diagram. The Activity diagram gives more detail to a given use case and it often depicts the flow of information, hence it is also called a Flowchart. Where the Use Case diagram has no timely order, the Activity diagram has a beginning and an end, and it also depicts decisions and repetitions.

If the Use Case diagram names the actors and gives us the headings for each scene (use case) of our play, the Activity diagram tells the detailed story behind each scene. Some managers may be able to understand Activity diagrams, but don't count on it.

Restaurant Activity Diagram.

Sequence DiagramEdit

Sequence Diagram.

Once we are done drawing our Activity diagrams, the next step of refinement is the Sequence diagram. In this diagram we list the actors or objects horizontally and then we depict the messages going back and forth between the objects by horizontal lines. Time is always progressing downwards in this diagram.

The Sequence diagram is a very important step in what is called the process of object-oriented analysis and design. This diagram is so important, because on the one hand it identifies our objects/classes and on the other hand it also gives us the methods for each of those classes, because each message turns into a method. Sequence diagrams can become very large, since they basically describe the whole program. Make sure, you cover every path in your Sequence diagrams, but try to avoid unnecessary repetition. Managers will most likely not understand Sequence diagrams.

Collaboration/Communication DiagramEdit

Collaboration Diagram.

The Collaboration diagram is an intermediate step to get us from the Sequence diagram to the Class diagram. It is similar to the Sequence diagram, but it has a different layout. Instead of worrying about the timeline, we worry about the interactions between the objects. Each object is represented by a box, and interactions between the objects are shown by arrows.

This diagram shows the responsibility of objects. If an object has too much responsibility, meaning there are too many lines going in and out of a box, probably something is wrong in your design. Usually you would want to split the box into two or more smaller boxes. At this stage in your design, this can still be done easily. Try to do that once you started coding, or even later, it will become a nightmare.

Class DiagramEdit

Class Diagram.

For us as software engineers, at least the object-oriented kind, the Class diagram is the most important one. A Class diagram consists of classes and lines between them. The classes themselves are drawn as boxes, having two compartments, one for methods and one for attributes.

You start with the Collaboration diagram, and the first thing you do is take all the boxes and call them classes now. Next, instead of having many lines going between the objects, you replace them by one line. But for every line you remove, you must add a method entry to the class's method compartment. So at this stage the Class diagram looks quite similar to the Collaboration diagram.

The things that make a Class diagram different are the attributes and the fact that there is not only one type of line, but several different kinds. As for the attributes, you must look at each class carefully and decide which variables are needed for this class to function. If the class is merely a data container this is easy, if the class does some more complicated things, this may not be so easy.

As for the lines, we call them relationships between the objects, and basically there are three major kinds:

  • the association (has a): a static relationship, usually one class is attribute of another class, or one class uses another class
  • the aggregation (consists of): for instance an order consists of order details
  • and the inheritance (is a): describes a hierarchy between classes

Now with the Class diagram finished, you can lean back: if you have a good UML Modelling tool you simply click on the 'Generate Code' button and it will create stubs for all the classes with methods and attributes in your favorite programming language. By the way, don't expect your manager to understand class diagrams.