The Coad Letter: Modeling and Design Edition, Issue 117, Strategies for Maintaining and Improving Quality, by Stephen Palmer
By: Coad Letter Modeling Editor
Abstract: Delivering high quality software is a stated goal of many development teams and it is a very admirable goal. To reach this goal we need to decide what high quality really means and we need to have some clue about how to achieve it?
Quality is often defined as the level of conformance to agreed requirements.
However, as Gerald Weinberg  points out, there
is a question of whose requirements these are. The requirements of the developers
working on a piece of software are different from the requirements of those
that use it. These two perspectives provide a useful approach to discussing
quality. Users are concerned with "external quality" and developers are concerned
with "internal quality".
Ask the users of a software product whether they think it is of high quality
and they will answer based on externally observable attributes of the software.
It is likely to be considered of low quality if it hangs or crashes too often,
is too slow in producing results, or sometimes produces the wrong results,
if it does not work well with other pieces of software, or if it has an overcomplicated
or tedious user interface. In contrast, if a piece of software does what it
should reasonably quickly under normal circumstances, handles abnormal circumstances
gracefully, works well with other software components, and is relatively easy
to use then it is likely to be considered of high quality.
The relative importance of these various factors obviously differs for different
types of software but it can also vary for different kinds of user. For example,
occasional users may value ease of use over performance but everyday users
may value performance over ease of use. A particular functional defect might
be of no importance to users doing one kind of work but critical to users
We can define external quality as the level a software product achieves
for the following factors:
- functional correctness, completeness and reliability -
how often does it produce the right results under normal circumstances?
- speed - does it produce results fast enough under normal circumstances?
- robustness - does it handle abnormal circumstances sensibly?
- compatibility - does it interoperate with other software components
- user friendliness - is it easy and intuitive to use?
...and more importantly, how appropriate the balance between these factors is for
the kind of software product in question.
For developers tasked with extending, enhancing, or otherwise maintaining
the software, the external quality is only one part of the picture. Developers
are as interested in the quality of the design and the quality of the source
code as they are in the external quality of the software. For example, are
the design and the source code easily understood? Are they efficient? Do they
comply with accepted standards, patterns, and best practices?
Just as with external quality, the relative importance of the different internal
quality factors of a piece of software depends on the type of software and
kind of developers involved.
Therefore, we can define the internal quality of a piece of software
as its level of and relative balance between the following factors:
- elegance - is the design and code as simple as possible but not
so simple that it does not do the job well?
- efficiency - does it avoid unnecessary overuse of resources?
- comprehensibility - is the design and code easy to understand?
- flexibility - can it be easily adapted to do things differently?
- compliance - does it conform to documented, agreed standards, patterns
and best practices?
Initially a piece of software with low internal quality may exhibit high
external quality. However, unless the internal quality is improved, the external
quality is bound to eventually suffer as developers try to fix bugs and add
new features over time. This is where refactoring becomes truly useful. Refactoring
is about making improvements to the internal structure of a piece of code
without changing its external behavior. Of course, if
we can start with high internal quality then the amount of refactoring needed
In incremental or iterative development maintaining internal quality becomes
even more important. In fact, I would assert that to be able to maintain a
high level of functional correctness and performance of a software product
throughout an aggressive release schedule demands an equal emphasis on maintaining
the internal quality and conceptual integrity of that software. To quote an
very cringey old television advert I saw in Singapore, "Wellness comes
Strategies for improving internal and external quality
Study after study over the last thirty years has shown that it is far easier
and much more cost effective to fix a problem close to the point of its introduction
than at some point significantly further into the future.
Some of the reasons for this are obvious:
- The later a problem is identified then the higher the likelihood that
work based on it has been added. That work will need to be rechecked and
- The later a problem is identified, the more groups of people involved
and the more administrative process required to have it fixed. For example,
a developer spotting a defect when running his own unit tests on a new piece
of his own work requires little in the way of administrative process to
fix that defect. In contrast, a defect in a shipped product discovered and
reported by a customer usually requires the involvement of the technical
support, development, testing, release, and documentation teams.
- The longer the distance between introducing a defect and identifying it,
the higher the level of frustration, irritation and resistance of developers.
They have to go back to designs and source code they thought was finished
long ago and rework it.
The following are some proven strategies for the early detection of problems
in internal and external quality.
Strategy 1: Use a highly iterative process.
Shorten the duration of each of the analysis, design, implement, test (ADIT)
sequence by using a highly iterative process. A traditional waterfall process
that does all the analysis first, followed by all the design, then all the
coding, and then all the testing, obviously has the longest possible 'distance'
between the end of an analysis, design and implementation activity and the
start of the testing activity where many analysis, design and coding defects
are identified. A highly iterative development process breaks down the deliverables
of a software project into small pieces and applies the development process
to each of those small pieces. Therefore, using a highly iterative process
means that the analysis, design and coding of each piece reaches testing much
A few other points are worth noting in this respect:
- I know that analysis, design , implementation, and testing activities
are never done in a pure sequence but as my old economics lecturer used
to say 'lets assume the curve on the graph is really a straight line to
make the math easier; it's the economic principle at this point that is
important not the details of math'. So, for the purposes of this discussion,
I am making an analogous assumption that analysis, design, implementation,
and testing are essentially a sequence of activities.
- As we have said previously, the longer the possible 'distance' between
introducing a defect and identifying it, the more formal the process needed
for bug reporting, tracking, fixing and re-testing because more people and
longer intervals of time are involved. It follows therefore that we can
expect highly incremental and iterative processes to be able to be less
formal than their waterfall cousins because they significantly reduce this
- Testing only examines external quality factors.
Strategy 2: Use collaborative analysis and design sessions
Design is all about examining the trade offs between various alternatives
and picking the one that best solves the problem under consideration. Picking
the wrong solution can lead to considerable amounts of rework (refactoring)
later on. Good designs earlier means high internal quality earlier making
it easier to achieve high external quality earlier.
Human beings, even the best of us, are fallible and have off days. However,
in many software development organizations individuals are expected to make
significant design decisions every day. Sometimes these mistakes are picked
up at design reviews but surprisingly few organizations practice these. Even
when the mistake is caught in a review it often means a significant amount
of time has been already lost. An alternative approach is to use collaborative
design sessions where design is done in small teams around flipcharts or whiteboards.
More minds applied means more ideas considered, more alternatives examined,
more chance of a truly elegant solution, and less chance of significant design
However, for collaborative design sessions to be more productive than individuals
working separately requires discipline and management. Facilitating team design
sessions and knowing when to work together and when to work separately is
a highly valuable skill in a development team lead or chief programmer. CoadLetter
learnt from Fred contains some very useful tips and techniques for
working well in small groups.
Strategy 3: Use design and code inspections/reviews/walkthroughs
The use of peer reviews, walkthroughs or inspections can significantly shorten
the distance between the introduction of defects and their detection. When
done well, inspections find more defects than testing and also find different
defects than testing. In contrast to testing, inspections improve the internal
quality of software by examining the analysis, design and source code.
The qualifying statement, when done well, is important. Done badly,
inspections and reviews rapidly become argumentative, demoralizing, intimidating
and soul-destroying wastes of time. It is worth, at the very least, reading
a good book on the subject before introducing inspections into a team's development
Inspections can be time-consuming and tools that help speed up the process
are very useful. Tools like Borland Together can produce UML class and sequence
diagrams directly from source code. These can be useful in visualizing and
understanding the high-level structure of code being reviewed before examining
the details. Some of my friends now use Together's generated sequence diagrams
for inspections instead of the actual source code with reportedly good results.
I have not had the opportunity to try this yet but it sounds like an interesting
idea. It does avoid the usual almost useless and petty arguments over source
code layout (something that can also be fixed by invoking Together's code
formatter with agreed settings prior to a review). Clued up developers can
also run Together's automated audits and metrics over their source code prior
to a review and fix up any flagged noncompliance with coding standards, etc.
Clued up reviewers can also do the same to highlight areas of the design or
code that could possibly be improved. The use of automated audits and metrics
is the topic of the next strategy.
Strategy 4: Use targeted automated audits and metrics
Use targeted automated audits and metrics to highlight potential problem
areas in design and source code. Borland Together comes with a large set of
automated source code audits and metrics, some of them very sophisticated.
These can be run as part of a regular build as well as on an ad hoc basis
prior to inspections or unit testing, for example. Automated audits can check
simple things like correct formatting of names of attributes, methods, and
classes, etc. They can also check more sophisticated things like private and
local variables that are not used, unhelpful hiding of variable names and
inappropriate overriding of methods. Metrics measures simple things like lines
of code, number of methods in a class, number of classes,etc. They can also
measure more interesting things such as degrees of coupling and levels of
It is important to target the audits and metrics. Agree as a team or organization
on the appropriate set of automated audits and metrics and their parameters.
Otherwise the results of running the audits and metrics are as likely to confuse,
frustrate, and waste time as they are to help pinpoint areas of poor internal
quality. For example, the value of reporting hundreds of source code layout
issues is highly dubious since they can generally be fixed in one shot by
a code formatter.
Note: It would also be really cool if Together could sew together the settings
and parameters of the audits and metrics into some sort of programming standards
document. So many organizations' QA departments require one. Java has the
Sun coding conventions of course but they only really cover the basics.
Maybe in a future release :-)
Strategy 5: Apply analysis, design and implementation patterns
Apply analysis, design and implementation patterns to reuse proven solutions
in analysis, design and implementation. This strategy probably needs little
explanation. Many developers are aware of and recognize the value of analysis,
design and coding patterns. Using proven building blocks reduces the likelihood
of poor designs being chosen.
As with automated audits and metrics, it is important to agree as a team
and organization on which patterns and variations of patterns you are going
to use. Without this agreement the use of patterns loses much of its value
because any pattern can be used whether it is appropriate or not.
Peter Coad and the designers of Borland Together recognized the value of
patterns very early on and Together includes a number of configurable wizards
that generate the skeleton code (and therefore the UML class diagrams in Together)
for a number of popular analysis, design and coding patterns. This list can
be extended using Together's pattern template editor for very simple patterns
and the open Java API for more sophisticated patterns.
Strategy 6: Communicate design clearly at all levels of abstraction
Communicate design clearly at all levels of abstraction using the most appropriate
means of communication: text, lists, tables and/or pictures.
Miscommunication and misunderstanding are behind many significant defect
in the analysis and design of software components and systems. Reducing these
problems can make a significant improvement in a systems internal and external
They say a picture is worth a thousand words but sometimes a simple list
or a few lines of source code communicate far better than any number of pictures.
A good software development team minimizes communication disconnects and misunderstandings
by using the most appropriate means available to communicate with the different
roles and personalities within a development team and with the other stakeholders
in a project.
Again tools like Borland's Together can help reduce the time and effort required
to do this. Together's source code parsing can be used to quickly build UML
class and interaction diagrams at various levels of detail and the built-in
document generator can be customized to produce useful, up-to-date documents
and web pages from those diagrams and source code.
As Mac Felsing points out in our book, A
Practical Guide to Feature-Driven Development ,
just splitting quality into two extreme perspectives is useful but reality
is a little more complicated. Other groups of people also have slightly different
sets of requirements and priorities. There are the project managers who focused
on the delivery of the software, the product managers who are interested in
maintaining the conceptual integrity of the product, the marketing team who
are interested in this year's fashionable features and so on. We end up with
internal and external quality being two extremes in a spectrum of view points
on quality. However, introducing strategies to improve the two extremes of
internal and external quality will go a long way to satisfying the many viewpoints
About the Author
Stephen Palmer is the principal consultant at SteP 10 (www.step-10.com).
An expert in pragmatic object-oriented analysis and design, Stephen works
with teams all over the world helping them create better software faster.
Many thanks to Richard Pitt at Borland UK for reviewing this in his spare
time and as a result improving both the content and style.
 Weinberg, Quality
Software Management Vol 1: Systems Thinking, Dorset House ISBN: 0-932633-22-6
 Fowler, Refactoring:
Improving the Design of Existing Code, Addison Wesley ISBN: 0-201-48567-2
 Palmer, Felsing, A
Practical Guide to Feature-Driven Development, Prentice Hall ISBN:
To read more of Stephen Palmer's work, visit http://www.step-10.com/
For more information on Agile Management, visit http://www.agilemanagement.net/
Use case modeling information can be found at http://www.advancedusecases.com/
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Published on: 1/30/2004 12:00:00 AM
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