Tuesday, June 09, 2009 

Design Rationale

In the past few weeks I've taken a little time to write down more about the concept of frequency; while doing so, I realized I had to explore the concept of forcefield better, and while doing so (yeap :-)) I realized there was a rather large overlap between the notion of forcefield and the notion of design rationale.

Design rationale extends beyond software engineering, and aims to capture design decisions and the reasoning behind those decisions. Now, design decisions are (ideally) taken as trade-offs between several competing forces. Those forces creates the forcefield, hence the large overlap between the two subjects.

The concept of design rationale has been around for quite a few years, but I haven't seen much progress either in tools or notations. Most often, tools fall into the “rationalize after the fact” family, while I'm more interested in reasoning tools and notations, that would help me (as a designer) get a better picture about my own thoughts while I'm thinking. That resonates with the concept of reflection in action that I've discussed in Listen to Your Tools and Materials a few years ago.

So, as I was reading a recent issue of IEEE Software (March/April 2009), I found a list of recent (and not so recent) tools dealing with design rationale in a paper by Philippe Kruchten, Rafael Capilla, Juan Carlos Dueñas (The Decision View’s Role in Software Architecture Practice), and I decided to take a quick ride. Here is a very quick summary of what I've found.

Seurat (see also the PDF tutorial on the same website) is based on a very powerful language / model, but the tool (as implemented) is very limiting. It's based on a tree structure, which makes for a nice todo list, but makes visual reasoning almost impossible. Actually, in the past I've investigated on using the tree format myself (and while doing so, I discovered others have done the same: see for instance the Reasoning Tree pattern), but restricting visualization to (hyperlinked) nodes in a tree just does not work when you're facing difficult problems.

Sysiphus seems to have recently morphed into another tool (UniCase), but from the demo of UniCase it's hard to appreciate any special support for design rationale (so far).

(see also some papers from Antony Tang on the same page; Antony also had an excellent paper on AREL in the same issue of IEEE Software)
AREL is integrated with Enterprise Architect. Integration with existing case tools (either commercial or free) seems quite a good idea to me. AREL uses a class diagram (through a UML profile) to model design rationale, so it's not limited to a tree format. Still, I've found the results rather hard to read. It seems more like a tool to give structure to design knowledge than a tool to reason about design. As I go through the examples, I have to study the diagram; it doesn't just talk back to me. I have to click around and look at other artifacts. The reasoning is not in the diagram, it's only accessible through the diagram.

Honestly, PAKME seems more like an exercise in building a web-based collaboration tool for software development than a serious attempt at providing a useful / usable tool to record design rationale. It does little more than organize artifacts, and it requires so many clicks / page refresh to get anything done that I doubt a professional designer could ever use it (sorry guys).

ADDSS is very much like PAKME, although it adds a useful Patterns section. It's so far from what I consider a useful design tool (see my for more) that I can't really think of using it (sorry, again).

Knowledge Architect
Again, a tool with some good ideas (like Word integration) but far from what I'm looking for. It's fine to create a structured design document, but not to reason about difficult design problems.

In the end, it seems like most of those tools suffer from the same problems:
- The research is good; a nice metamodel is built, some of the problems faced by professional designers seem to be well understood.
- The tool does little more than organize knowledge, would get in the way of the designer thinking about thorny issues, does not help through visualization, and is at best useful at the end of the design process, possibly to fake some rationality, a-la Parnas/Clements.

That said, AREL is probably the most promising tool of the pack, but in the end I've being doing pretty much the same for years now, using (well, abusing :-) plain old use case diagrams to model goals and issues, with a few ideas taken from KAOS and the like.

Recently, I began experimenting with another standard UML diagram (the activity diagram) to model some portion of design reasoning. I'll show an example in my next post, and then show how we can change our perspective and move from design reasoning to the forcefield.

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Nel design gli strumenti che uso per valutare e ricordare ragioni e alternative sono: un editor outline per organizzare le informazioni, i problemi e i ragionamenti, e uno strumento di disegno per fare qualche "schizzo" UML. Nel concreto MS Word e Visio (con gli ottimi stencil di Pavel Hruby che consentono massima liberta' ed espressivita' = puoi fare tutto quanto previsto dallo std). I soli diagrammi senza testo dopo tempo mi risultano... senza con-testo e faccio fatica a riprendere i ragionamenti fatti. Mentre per il testo mi trovo piu' a mio agio con l'organizzazione gerarchica dell'outline che non con quella "associativa" di strumenti come mappe mentali e simili.
Sono forse strumenti un po' "grezzi", o che possono presentare dei limiti in gruppo. Comunque mi piacerebbe provare ad utilizzare a questo scopo l'activity diagram come suggerisci tu, quindi resto in attesa di un tuo esempio.
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