Wednesday 23 June 2010

One team, one language

On a previous post I was discussing, among other things, how code often doesn't represent the business properly. The code "satisfies" the business requirements but doesn't express them very well. The main reason for that is because we, developers, like to abstract business terms and rules into technical implementations and patterns.

Very often, we discuss the user stories (requirement documents, use cases, whatever the methodology used is) with the "domain experts" and as soon as we understand what needs to be done, we map the requirements to a technical design (actions, services, entities, helpers, DAOs, etc) that is completely meaningless to the domain experts. Sometimes, even among developers themselves, different names and expressions are used to refer to the same thing. The main reason is that different developers talk to different domain experts and come up with different abstractions. As a result,  the usage of different terms to describe requirements leads to confusion, duplication of code and unpredictable behaviour in the system.

The first step towards an expressive and domain-focused design is to have a common language among ALL members of the team. ALL means ALL: developers, domain experts (business analysts, users, product owner, etc), testers, project manager and anyone else involved in the project.

Developers very often say that domain experts don't understand objects and database and because of that, they need to "translate" business requirements into software design. However, we developers don't understand the business as well as the domain experts do, what more often than not, leads to imperfect and confusing abstractions.

The Ubiquitous Language

A language structured around the domain model and used by all team members to connect all the activities of the team with the software.
The Ubiquitous Language is one of the most important things, if not the most, in Domain-Driven Design. The main idea is that the whole team speaks a single language, that is the business language.

Business terms related to the software to be implemented must enter the ubiquitous language and each of these terms must be understood clearly by all members. During requirements gathering sessions and planning meetings, these terms must be captured and made available to everybody. Technical terms from the development team and business terms not relevant for the piece of software being implemented MUST NOT enter the ubiquitous language. 

Capturing the ubiquitous language

In order to capture the ubiquitous language, it is mandatory that you work on a iterative software development environment. Trying to capture the ubiquitous language up-front could straitjacket the whole process, inhibiting team members to make the necessary changes along the way. As the language is used to express the business requirements, it is natural that it evolves during the lifetime of the project, where new terms are added, deleted and also re-defined.

Methodologies like Extreme Programming (XP) says that the only documentation should be the code. Not even comments on the code are appreciated, since they can easily get out of sync with the code. The code should be the only documentation since it is the only one that represents exactly what the system does.

On the other hands, we have UML (Unified Modeling Language), that in theory, should be a great candidate to document the ubiquitous language since the whole purpose of UML was to document requirements and express them in a language that is common to developers and business people.

In summary, showing code during discussions with domain experts, testers and other members of the team during a design session is not exactly a fantastic idea. Also, using just UML, because of its bureaucracy, rules and details is also a bad idea. The whole UML notation could easily straitjacket the creative process during the exercise.

There are many discussions about what would be the best way to capture the ubiquitous language. My preferred way is to draw diagrams (boxes and arrows mixed with some well understood UMLish notation) where each box represent a "domain object" (aka domain concept). A domain object can be anything that is expressed by the business, like client, organisation, product, route specification,  sales system, etc. They would all be boxes. Add to it a few arrows linking the boxes and with just a couple of words explaining how they related to each other. Sometimes a mixture of a class and sequence diagram (or an active diagram) can be very helpful, but don't get to picky about any notation. Preferably, draw on a white board, take a picture and store that on the wiki. For further sessions, just open the wiki and re-draw just the bit of the design that is important to the feature being discussed. Make the necessary adjusts on the white board, take another picture and stored it on the wiki again. There is much more to that, if you want to dive into agile modeling, but I will leave it to another post.

This goes way beyond transforming nouns and verbs into classes and methods. Taking the examples above, for example, client, organisation and products could be transformed in entities; route specification could be a strategy class used by a routing service (that would also need to be added to the diagram and to the ubiquitous language); sales system would be an external system that we need to integrate to, etc.

Making the code more expressive

The code should reflect all concepts exposed by the model. Classes and methods should be named according to the names defined by the domain. Associations, compositions, aggregations and sometimes even inheritances should be extracted from the model. 

Sometimes, during implementation, we realise that some of the domain concepts discussed and added to the model don't actually fit well together and some changes are necessary. When it happens, developers should discuss the problems and/or limitations with the domain experts and refactor the domain model in order to favour a more precise implementation, without ever distorting the business significance of the design. 

Ultimately, the code is the most important artefact of a software project and it needs to work efficiently. Regardless of what many experts in the subject say, code implementation will have some impact on the design. However, we need to be careful and very selective about which aspects of the code can influence design changes. As a rule, try as much as you can to never let technical frameworks limitations influence your design, but as we know, every rule has exceptions.

A common implementation problem that very often get in the way is mapping objects to databases using ORM tools. In this case, bending the model a little bit in favour of a more realistic relation among entities is not a bad thing. Just make sure that changes like that are represented in the model and understood by everyone involved.    

DOs and DON'Ts 
  • Don't try to model everything. Focus on the core of your application. We are not working on a waterfall or Unified Process project here.
  • Try to model just the key concepts of the domain problem;
  • Do not clutter your models with too much details. Keep it focused on the main responsibilities;
  • Limit your discussions and changes in the model to the business concepts (domain objects) related to the user story being discussed;
  • Don't add architectural concepts like DAOs, Actions, etc. We are not writing implementation diagrams. 
  • As your application grows, break the application into multiple models (domains), explicitly defining the context and boundaries within which a model applies. This is called Bounded Context in Domain-Driven Design.
  • Avoid thinking purely on the implementation when designing your model. Understanding and modeling the business is the most important thing here. 
Challenges of a Model-Driven Design

Model-Driven Design (MDD) is more an art than a science. It takes a lot of practice and willingness to get it going and get it right. Refactoring towards deeper insights must be seen as a positive and essential part of the project development. TDD and continuous integration are also essential for any agile and domain-driven application.

The goal of MDD is having the software expressing a deep and supple design.
Last buy not least, developers with good Object-Oriented Design skills are needed in the project. The lack of design skills could easily transform ANY software project in a total failure in the long term.


Unknown said...

Hi Sandro,

Congratulations for your Blog!
You are totally right, many times in our projects IT professionals tend to think in a vertical rather than horizontal approach compromising the final result. When you think of a vertical perspective you end up isolating responsibilities and do not see the whole process of business in its horizontal form. I believe it is important that the team understand what will be delivered in a particular "release" and not just the task you are assigned at this time. I believe that could be the gap between developers and users.

Best Regards

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