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Strategies for Software Development Project Success – Part One of a Two-Part Series

Best Practices for Improving Project Success: The Importance of Synchronization

Unless you understood the specific needs of these two user groups when you were designing your application, you would risk creating a system that would not satisfy the requirements of either one.

Business use cases versus system use cases
Depending on the system in question, there may be a significant difference between business and system use cases. One depicts a user's business and the other a user's interaction with the system. However, the difference between these two types of use cases can become blurry. For example, in a software development business, the system IS the business. While you are developing and testing a specific system feature, it is easy to forget that the final user may not use the system the same way you do - or even have the same needs.

To understand the distinction between a business use case and a system use case, imagine that a software team has been charged with developing a software application that must perform equally well in different local environments around the globe. To ensure that the application meets these requirements, the team must comply with a set of minimum globalization rules.1 These rules are hard-coded in a set of specifications that cannot be modified at will. The development team needs to audit the code against these rules, and currently they must do this manually. A programmer (auditor) must open each source file and find any inconsistencies with the specified rules.

Here is an example of the business use case. It is one of the business use cases for reviewing some aspect of code quality, often a time consuming manual activity. For each source file in the workspace:

  1. Open the source file.
  2. Read the code line by line (note: requires deep coding knowledge).
  3. If you find a suspicious method, consult the Web page containing the rules (note: very time consuming).
  4. Resolve the problem by fixing the code, if possible (business use case for the developer).
    a. Alternative flow for the tester role: If you cannot fix the problem right away, document the finding in a Word document and submit it to the developer.
  5. Open the next source file and repeat the steps.
As you can see, this is a tedious process - some steps in the use case are manual and prone to user errors and therefore good candidates for automation to speed the process up. The focus of the business use case is the process with, or without any tools.

On the other hand the system use case focuses on the interactions of the user with the system - in our example a tool for automated validation of source code.

Example system use case

Precondition: Globalization rules are enabled in the code review feature of the IDE.

  1. Open the code review tool in the IDE.
    a. (Steps for opening the tool).
  2. Run code review.
    a. Main flow -- click on the button "Run."
    b. (List of alternative flows described in detail in a new section).
  3. Review the results of the automated review (findings).
  4. For each finding, resolve the finding:
    a. Main flow: Submit a defect.
    b. (List of alternative flows described in detail in a new section).
  5. If you cannot fix the code right away, submit a defect.
    a. (Steps for defect submission).
Often a system use case has a purpose of improving the business scenarios through the introduction of tools and automation that help improving the effectives of the user's business. A good system use case fits well in the user's business scenarios and use cases and improves them. The comparison of the two also provides an insight into the return of the investment (ROI) of the planned system.

The value of system use cases
Once you define the user's "as is" process and goals, you can specify what portion of the user's activities an automated system can supply. A short document with steps such as the ones described above would provide plenty of information to the reader on what the final product should look like, how it would help the customers with their business, and so forth -- even if this information is not explicitly spelled out.

Here are some obvious benefits of having a system use case for code reviews:

  • Even without having a line of code classified as "code review ready for testing," a tester can go ahead and create a test plan for the functionality described above.
  • In addition, at this point, a documentation person could go ahead and create and/or append the structure of the documentation for the code review.
  • The development manager could then optimize the development schedule, so that the first development build would satisfy at least the main flow of this use case.
Use cases accelerate the development project and engage all team members right at the beginning of the project. If you don't already focus your work around use cases, give them a try. The effort is well worth it.

Getting the right level of detail for system use cases
How much information should you include in each use case step?

My preference is to derive and group the system use cases around the business use cases and also group a number of user interactions under one group of steps. The group of steps explains the purpose of the step and is likely to remain unchanged if some detail in the implementation changes. This approach helps to make the document more readable, it connects the system use case with the business use case, and it allows the use case to be easily modified if the product implementation changes.

For example, the simple steps in our system use case above, "Run code review," convey a wealth of information to the careful reader, including:

  • Code review is integrated in the IDE.
  • Code review must be engaged, or "run."
  • Code review provides a list of findings about deviations from the set of validated standards.
  • Some of the findings have quick fixes.
  • Code review will have quick fixes.
3. Ensuring effective testing
Once the use cases are set in place and the team has agreed that they represent the right way to go, the use cases become the foundation for the rest of the plan. In fact, this is the only way to take advantage of the benefits they offer.

The engineering team builds a development plan that includes, at the very least, a list of components to be built and a timeframe for each of them. It is very important to create clear traceability between features needed for the main use cases and the components necessary for the features to work.

Identifying these core components and defining their use cases are crucial steps that allow early testing of the application functionality. If the core components are delivered early in the development cycle, then the tester can start writing test scripts for the basic set of rules and validate that the tool functions properly.

In our example, the system use case "Run code review" enabled the tester to make a test plan for this core functionality even before the code was written and also to create a set of manual test scripts for both the main flow and alternative options.

Types of testing
The simplest form of testing -- and a very effective one -- is to assemble a number of educated users to exercise various features of the application under test and report issues (findings, defects) to the code development team. The metrics for this form of validation are simple: The more users you have, the more defects you'll detect. Different user groups will use the tool in different ways and further improve the number of detected problems. However, there are some issues related to this. By the time the software is ready for user consumption, there may not be enough time to launch an extensive test program. Different users may be on different product builds. Even more important, depending entirely on human beings is very expensive and very unreliable.

More Stories By Goran Begic

Goran Begic is a Senior IT Specialist with IBM.

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