A hopefully modern description of Object-Oriented Analysis

I’ve made a lot over the years, including the book, Object-Oriented Programming the Easy Way, of my assertion that one reason people are turned off from Object-Oriented Programming is that they weren’t doing Object-Oriented Design. Smalltalk was conceived as a system for letting children explore computers by writing simulations of other problems, and if you haven’t got the bit where you’re creating simulations of other problems, then you’re just writing with no goal in mind.

Taken on its own, Object-Oriented Programming is a bit of a weird approach to modularity where a package’s code is accessed through references to that package’s record structures. You’ve got polymorphism, but no guidance as to what any of the individual morphs are supposed to be, let alone a strategy for combining them effectively. You’ve got inheritance, but inheritance of what, by what? If you don’t know what the modules are supposed to look like, then deciding which of them is a submodule of other modules is definitely tricky. Similarly with encapsulation: knowing that you treat the “inside” and “outside” of modules differently doesn’t help when you don’t know where that side ought to go.

So let’s put OOP back where it belongs: embedded in an object-oriented process for simulating a problem. The process will produce as its output an executable model of the problem that produces solutions desired by…

Well, desired by whom? The answer that Extreme Programming and Agile Software Development, approaches to thinking about how to create software that were born out of a time when OOP was ascendant, would say “by the customer”: “Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software”, they say.

Yes, if we’re working for money then we have to satisfy the customer. They’re the ones with the money in the first place, and if they aren’t then we have bigger problems than whether our software is satisfactory. But they aren’t the only people we have to satisfy, and Object-Oriented Design helps us to understand that.

If you’ve ever seen someone who was fully bought into the Unified Modelling Language (this is true for other ways of capturing the results of Object-Oriented Analysis but let’s stick to thinking about the UML for now), then you’ll have seen a Use Case diagram. This shows you “the system” as an abstract square, with stick figures for actors connected to “the system” via arrows annotated with use cases – descriptions of what the people are trying to do with the system.

We’ve already moved past the idea that the software and the customer are the only two things in the world, indeed the customer may not be represented in this use case diagram at all! What would that mean? That the customer is paying for the software so that they can charge somebody else for use of the software: that satisfying the customer is an indirect outcome, achieved by the action of satisfying the identified actors.

We’ve also got a great idea of what the scope will be. We know who the actors are, and what they’re going to try to do; therefore we know what information they bring to the system and what sort of information they will want to get out. We also see that some of the actors are other computer systems, and we get an idea of what we have to build versus what we can outsource to others.

In principle, it doesn’t really matter how this information is gathered: the fashion used to be for prolix use case documents but these days, shorter user stories (designed to act as placeholders for a conversation where the details can be worked out) are preferred. In practice the latter is better, because it takes into account that the act of doing some work changes the understanding of the work to be done. The later decisions can be made, the more you know at the point of deciding.

On the other hand, the benefit of that UML approach where it’s all stuck on one diagram is that it makes commonalities and pattern clearer. It’s too easy to take six user stories, write them on six Github issues, then get six engineers to write six implementations, and hope that some kind of convergent design will assert itself during code review: or worse, that you’ll decide what the common design should have been in retrospective, and add an “engineering story” to the backlog to be deferred forever more.

The system, at this level of abstraction, is a black box. It’s the opaque “context” of the context diagram at the highest level of the C4 model. But that needn’t stop us thinking about how to code it! Indeed, Behaviour-Driven Development has us do exactly that. Once we’ve come to agreement over what some user story or use case means, we can encapsulate (there’s that word again) our understanding in executable form.

And now, the system-as-simulation nature of OOP finally becomes important. Because we can use those specifications-as-scripts to talk about what we need to do with the customer (“so you’re saying that given a new customer, when they put a product in their cart, they are shown a subtotal that is equal to the cost of that product?”), refining the understanding by demonstrating that understanding in executable form and inviting them to use a simulation of the final product. But because the output is an executable program that does what they want, that simulation can be the final product itself.

A common step when implementing Behaviour-Driven Development is to introduce a translation layer between “the specs” and “the production code”. So “a new user” turns into User.new.save!, and someone has to come along and write those methods (or at least inherit from ActiveRecord). Or worse, “a new user” turns into PUT /api/v0/internal/users, and someone has to both implement that and the system that backs it.

This translation step isn’t strictly true. “A new user” can be an statement in your software implementation, your specs can be both a simulation of what the system does and the system itself, you save yourself a lot of typing and a potentially faulty translation.

There’s still a lot to Object-Oriented Analysis, but it roughly follows the well-worn path of Domain-Driven Design. Where we said “a new user”, everybody on the team should agree on what a “user” is, and there should be a concept (i.e. class) in the software domain that encapsulates (that word again!) this shared understanding and models it in executable form. Where we said the user “puts a product in their cart”, we all understand that products and carts are things both in the problem and in the software, and that a user can do a thing called “putting” which involves products, and carts, in a particular way.

If it’s not clear what all those things are or how they go together, we may wish to roleplay the objects in the program (which, because the program is a simulation of the things in the problem, means roleplaying those things). Someone is a user, someone is a product, someone is a cart. What does it mean for the user to add a product to their cart? What is “their” cart? How do these things communicate, and how are they changed by the experience?

We’re starting to peer inside the black box of the “system”, so in a future post we’ll take a proper look at Object-Oriented Design.

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