Software Systems Design Methods: A Potted History
The text that follows is also available as an Adobe
Acrobat document. Just click the PDF logo on the right.
The development of software system design methods has been something of
a melting pot. The earliest programmable computers were used by mathematicians and
physicists for solving very difficult problems (e.g. Bletchley Park which cracked the
Enigma code and the Manhattan Project which developed the atom bomb). Later on other
sciences like chemistry and astronomy would make use of the new digital computers.
Engineers would use computers for solving design problems. Out of this emerged the
so-called discipline of computer science which found its own uses for the ever larger
As computers became more powerful and more groups were able to use
them, so more and more people developed software to run on the machines. The development
of the transistor allowed computer memories to grow rapidly; consequently installed
software also grew in size and complexity. By the time large commercial operations such as
banks and insurance companies set up their early data processing departments the size of
software programs had grown so much that the new third generation languages (3GL) were
developed to help manage the growing source code size.
Out of all this emerged different styles and practices for designing
and writing computer programs. Naturally, some approaches were more methodical and
rigorous than others. With the increasing problems of software development and maintenance
in the 1960s and '70s (eloquently described by Frederick Brooks) came an acceptance that
some "structured" approach was needed. The early '70s saw the emergence of
so-called "structured programming" which Jackson's celebrated JSP method coming
along in 1975.
We are now in the position of being able to choose from a range of
different methods each designed to meet specific needs within the software development
Figure 2 The SSDM Domain
A good general purpose design method should aim to address all stages
of the system development lifecycle. As we shall see, not all methods attempt to address
The development of methods of systems design has followed a path which
has been much criticised, wrongly in our view. Methods have evolved which have allowed the
building of systems of considerable complexity and utility. The major problem is that user
requirements for change have occurred at an alarming rate and hardware technology has
progressed at a rate which has exceeded many expectations and has in fact fuelled many of
the requests for change. Add to this the growing realisation that change is necessary for
rapid business growth and is at least easier with computer technology, and it is readily
seen what has put computer systems to the test. The result is that many methods have not
facilitated change, at least not at the rate which is expected of them.
The very earliest methods assumed a fairly simplistic life cycle and a
fairly common pattern of:
Data capture, followed by
Data validation, followed by
Ordering of valid data, followed by
Updating a master file, followed by
Extraction of required information from the master file.
Later systems merely combined one or more of the above processes. The
problems of design within such a pattern are:
What data are required to be kept in the master file(s)? (the
trick here was to anticipate the information requirements);
How, when and where to capture and check the basic systems data?;
How many processes are required in maintaining the systems data and
producing the necessary business information?;
Matching hardware and systems software to the anticipated application
The problems were not normally very difficult to solve in a static
situation, but become enormous in a highly dynamic business environment. Why?
Because new data requirements tended to necessitate a very large
number of systems changes most particularly in the software;
New processes tended to affect existing ones often in unpredictable
The business environment has a much more complex structure than the
simple notion of collect data and transform it into information.
Very rapidly systems analysts/designers started to use a variety of
diagrammatic aids to describe existing and new systems (not that this was new in
itselfin the business world, Organisation and Methods analysts have used a number of
different charting methods for many years). These, in the main, both clarified the
specification of systems and their implementationwhen they were up-to-date. Modern
CASE (Computer Aided Software Engineering) tools using quite sophisticated graphics
techniques aim to eliminate this problem.
While tools were being developed (comparatively slowly), the software
design aspects of computer systems concentrated at first on the notions of modularity,
top-down development and step-wise refinement culminating in the almost universally
accepted if ill-defined structured programming which was then extended into
various forms of structured systems analysis and design. Although many of the methods
overlap and terminology is by no means universally accepted we can at least recognise
three basic categories of method worthy of study:
Data flow-oriented design;
Data structure-oriented design, and
Of these, you will be most familiar with the first two. We shall be
reviewing these and developing a deeper understanding of one of the most specific methods
in the second category (JSD). It is possible to view JSD as having a largely object
orientated flavour, and we shall attempt to bring this out.
One definition of a methodology is "a collection of procedures,
techniques, tools and documentation aids which will help the systems developers in their
efforts to implement a new system".
The objectives of methodologies often differ greatly. The following
list gives six reasonable objectives.
To record accurately the requirements for an
information system. The users must be able to specify their requirements in a way
which both they and the systems developers will understand, otherwise the resultant
information system will not meet the needs of the users.
To provide a systematic method of development in
such a way that progress can be effectively monitored. Controlling large scale
projects is not easy, and a project which does not meet its deadlines can have serious
cost implications for the organisation. The provision of checkpoints and well defined
stages in a methodology should ensure that project planning techniques can be effectively
To provide an information system within an
appropriate time limit and at an acceptable cost. Unless the time spent using some of
the techniques included in some methodologies is limited, it is possible to devote an
enormous amount of largely unproductive time attempting to achieve perfection. A
methodology reflects pragmatic considerations.
To produce a system which is well documented and
easy to maintain. The need for future modifications to the information system is
inevitable as a result of changes taking place in the organisation. These modifications
should be made with the least effect on the rest of the system. This requires good
To provide an indication of any changes which need
to be made as early as possible in the development process. As an information system
progresses from analysis through design to implementation, the costs associated with
making changes increases. Therefore the earlier the changes are effected, the better.
To provide a system which is liked by those people
affected by that system. The people affected by the information system may include
clients, managers, auditors, and users. If a system is liked by them, it is more likely
that the system will be used and be successful.
Just as we can trace the development of programming languages from
first generation languages through to today's fourth-generation environments, so we can
map a generational development of systems methods.
In the first-generation methods of the 1960s developers tended to rely
on a single technique and modelling tool, although various techniques and tools existed
for varied sets of problems (see the melting pot earlier). These early methods made use of
the so-called structured techniques associated with program design. These centred around
functional decomposition as a way of reducing complexity, a form of divide et impera.
Structured design became ingrained and almost innate and spawned the development of
techniques such as data-flow diagramming.
Despite rapid technological changes, there is much inertia in the
software industry and many organisations did not adopt any form of structured analysis and
design until the 1980s.
If the first generation models were data- or process-oriented, the more
mature second generation models placed much more emphasis on the construction and checking
of models. The aim was to provide a smoother path from initial requirements gathering and
specification through to design and implementation. So, we see life-cycle models as being
integrated much more into the design methods. The models used were seen sequential with
each individual model addressing different stages in the life cycle. Thus, the first model
constructed would aims to capture system requirements in policy terms (i.e., what must the
system do). This description would then be elaborated on and refined in later stages to
show how these requirements could be realised using available technology. The
logical/physical model approach of SSADM is a good example of this.
Where first generation methods tended to model a system from a single
viewpoint, e.g. looking only at data or only at process, second generation methods
recognised that both data and function are equally important aspects of a single
In the second generation of methods, although models are used, the view
of them is still rather low level. That is, a 2G method tends to deal with individual,
discrete diagrams. Issues about how analysis and design units fit together and interact
tended to be ignored.
In 1983, with the introduction of Jackson System Development, we see
the emergence of the third generation of system design methods. In JSD we have a more
holistic approach to system design. The second generation methods, although taking a
multi-viewpoint model-based approach still compartmentalised and dealt with individual
diagrams and models. In the third generation we see more concern with the system as a
whole (from policy statement right down to implementation) rather than with its different
We see third generation methods attempting to focus on the 'real world'
of the system; much attention is given to the essential policy and purpose of the required
system. Any models constructed support the transition from problem statement through to
implementation without losing sight of this high-level view.
The conventional approach advocated most lucidly by the NCC has been
described in detail elsewhere. Essentially it consists of the so called waterfall
model life-cycle of:
Review and maintenance;
and was characterised by attempts to produce technical and user
documentation using standard forms and check lists. The underlying document categories are
as shown in Table 1.
||Terms of reference.
||Discussion records, correspondence,
||System outline, run charts, flow
||Document specs., file specs.,
record layouts etc.
||Grid charts, organisation charts,
data item definition, hardware & software facilities.
||Test dat spec., test plans, test
operations, test logs.
||Development & operation cost
||Estimates or reports of timings,
volumes, growth etc.
||Copy control, amendments
incorporated list, outstanding amendments.
Table 1: NCC
The major criticisms of this approach were:
Failure to meet the needs of management: Although systems
developed by this approach often successfully deal with such operational processing as
payroll and the various accounting routines, middle management and top management have
been largely ignored by computer data processing. There is a growing awareness by managers
that computers ought to be helping the organisation to meet its corporate objectives.
Unambitious systems design: Producing a computer system that
mirrors the current manual system is bound to lead to unambitious systems which may not be
as beneficial as more radical systems.
Models of processes are unstable: The conventional methodology
attempts to improve the way that the processes in businesses are carried out. However,
businesses do change, and processes need to change frequently to adapt to new
circumstances in the business environment. Because computer systems model processes, they
have to be modified or rewritten frequently. It could be said therefore that computer
systems, which are models of processes, are unstable because the real world
processes themselves are unstable.
Output driven design leads to inflexibility: The outputs that
the system is meant to produce are usually decided very early in the development process.
Design is output driven in that once the output is agreed, the inputs are
decided and the processes to convert input to output can be designed. However, changes to
required outputs are frequent and because the system has been designed from the outputs
backwards, changes in outputs usually necessitate a very large change to the system
User dissatisfaction: Sometimes systems are rejected as soon as
they are implemented, often because the user requires more flexibility than the computer
system has been designed to give. Users have found it difficult to understand technical
matters which are often given far more attention than the underlying business problems.
Problems with documentation: Although claimed to be one of the
major benefits of the NCC approach, it has been criticised for being too technical, too
easy to leave until too late, too easy to forget altogether and too easy to forget to
Incomplete systems: Exceptions are frequently ignored because
they are too expensive, and often not diagnosed or simply forgotten.
Application backlog: Some users literally have to wait for years
for a system to be implemented. Others simply do not bother asking.
Maintenance workload: Keeping operational systems going whether
they have been designed well or badly will nearly always take first place sometimes
leading to patches upon patches. The maintenance workload is in
most cases an increasing one.