Software Design

Terms defined: Don't Repeat Yourself, Open-Closed Principle, Representational State Transfer, Unified Modeling Language, actor, already invented here syndrome, analysis paralysis, conceptual architecture, design by contract, entity-relationship diagram, finite state machine, layered configuration, microservice, not invented here syndrome, post-condition, pre-condition, scriptable, type declaration, use-case map, user story, workflow diagram.

A week of hard work can sometimes save an hour of thought.

Robert Wilson

Building large programs with other people is different from building small programs on your own in two important ways. The first is communication: in order for you and your teammates to collaborate, you need to agree about what you're collaborating on, which means you need to tell each other how you are breaking the problem up into pieces and how those pieces will interact .

The second difference between programming in the small and programming in the large is that while you can hack your way from an empty .js or .py file to a hundred-line program in a reasonable time, the re-work required by that strategy becomes unaffordable when your final product is a thousand lines long.

To see why, suppose the final program is \(N\) lines long and is made up of chunks that are each \(L\) lines long, so there are \(C = N/L\) chunks in total. You write chunks one by one; each time you add one, there is a probability \(p\) that each of the chunks already written needs to be rewritten. How many chunks do you actually wind up writing?

This model is unrealistic in every way—the odds of rewriting old code is lower than the odds of rewriting recent code, for example—but it captures a key point: the cost of rework grows faster than the number of pieces of work. You can't lower \(C\) by increasing \(L\) (since as explains, there's a limit to how much you can hold in your mind at once), so your goal when designing software is to lower \(N\) by re-using code from libraries or to reduce the cost of reworking things by lowering \(p\).

I can't tell you how to design software, and I don't know anyone who can. I can show you by working through examples on a whiteboard, asking rhetorical questions, and setting problems for you to think about, but that doesn't translate well to print. I can also tell you how to describe designs and how to tell a good design from a bad one, so we'll start with that.

Learning by example

The best way to learn design in any field is to study examples Schon1984,Petre2016, and some of the best examples of software design come from the tools programmers use in their own work. Kernighan1979,Kernighan1981,Kernighan1983 introduced the Unix philosophy to an entire generation of programmers; Brown2011,Brown2012,Brown2016 and Mary Rose Cook's Gitlet take this approach as well. There is also Software Tools in JavaScript, which was developed in tandem with this material and can be used as a starting point for many different class projects.

The discussion of how to design for test in is another example of teaching by example. A general rule like, "Building components that can easily be replaced makes testing easier," would only have been meaningful if you already understand the point; explaining it with a specific example (testing an MVC application) made it more relatable.

Describing Designs

Cherubini2007 found that developers usually don't draw diagrams to create a permanent record of design. Instead, they use diagrams as an aid to conversation in the moment—essentially, as a temporary store for ideas that they wouldn't otherwise be able to keep track of (). In many cases, the people who drew the diagrams couldn't make sense of them a day later; it could be that the benefit of diagrams therefore comes from the act of drawing, not from having them to study.

When experienced developers do draw something for later use, they generally draw the following:

Data structures.
These are blob-and-arrow pictures of the objects and containers that make up the program and the references that stitch them together. The more experience someone has, the fewer of these they need to draw, but everyone falls back on them eventually (particularly during difficult debugging sessions).
The systems' conceptual architecture.
This shows how the important parts of the system fit together. It's also the least constrained, since it can include everything from specific sections of configuration files to class hierarchies to replicated web servers. What qualifies as "important" depends on what aspect(s) of the system you're currently concerned with. If I'm trying to explain a bug that only arises when the application is configured incorrectly, I might draw its configuration files, and the database tables that store user preferences, but leave out the password database and log files entirely. If we're trying to figure out a better load balancing strategy, on the other hand, I would draw most of what would go into a physical architecture diagram, plus just enough of the class inheritance hierarchy to show how the servers will load user request handlers dynamically.
The system's physical architecture.
This is the files, processes, sockets, database tables, etc., that make it up. In most cases, this consists of a bunch of boxes representing the machines the application's components run on, trees showing files and directories, and circles showing running processes. A lot of this stuff can show up in the conceptual architecture as well.
Workflow diagrams that show how users accomplish things.
Workflows are almost always drawn as finite state machines. Each node represents a state the user and the system can be in, while the arcs show how to get from one state to another.
Schemas or data models.
These can be fairly literal pictures of the tables in a database, possibly augmented with arrows to show what's a foreign key for what, or entity-relationship diagrams that also show which relationships are one-to-one, one-to-many, and so on ().
Entity-relationship diagram
An example of an entity-relationship diagram for students, instructors, and courses.

The two kinds of diagram that I find most useful are ER diagrams and a combination of conceptual and use-case maps Reekie2006. The background of a use-case map is the system's conceptual architecture; the overlay traces what happens during a particular workflow (). I find these particularly useful for checking the behavior of systems built from lots of microservices.

Use case maps
An example of a use case map (from Reekie2006).

UML and why not

I'm not a fan of the Unified Modeling Language (UML). It defines over a dozen different types of diagrams for showing the relationships between classes, the order in which things happen when methods are invoked, the states a system goes through when performing an action, and so on. Hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written about UML, but in all the years I've been programming, I've only ever met one person who drew UML diagrams of his own free will on a regular basis. I've known a handful of other people who occasionally sketched class diagrams as part of a larger description of a design, and that's pretty much it. Unlike blueprints in architecture or flow diagrams in chemical engineering, UML doesn't actually seem to help practitioners very much Petre2013.

If you have to use UML because it's a course requirement, PlantUML will convert specially-formatted text into diagrams for you, and the former are much easier for version control systems to work with. In my opinion, though, you'll get more out of investing time in the modeling tools described at the end of .

One often-overlooked finding about visualization is that people understand flowcharts better than pseudocode if both are equally well structured Scanlan1989. Earlier work showing that pseudocode outperformed flowcharts used structured pseudocode and tangled flowcharts; when the playing field was leveled, novices did better with the graphical representation.

Getting Started

Suppose you're starting with a blank sheet of paper (or an empty whiteboard): how do you describe something that doesn't exist yet? The best way to start is to write your elevator pitch (). Next, write one or two point-form user stories describing how the application, feature, or library would be used. Be as concrete as possible: instead of saying, "Allows the user to find overlaps between their calendar and their friends' calendars," say:

  1. The user selects one of her friends' calendars.

  2. The system displays a page showing how the busy/not-busy times in that person's calendar overlaps with the user's.

  3. The user can then add more of her friends' calendars one by one or remove any calendars except her own. The system updates the display after each action to show how many people overlap where.

As short as it is, this story tells us that:

Once you have half a dozen of these stories, go through and highlight the key things and relationships you have described. In the example above, you would highlight "user", "friend", "calendar", and "page". As soon as you try to draw a diagram showing how these are related to one another, you'll have to start making design decisions: for example, is "friend" an entity, or a relationship between two entities (i.e., is it a blob or an arrow)?

If you hear yourself say, "We'll use a linked list to…" step back and catch your breath. Details like that do need to be worked out at some point, but:

Once you have a diagram—any kind of diagram—start iterating around it. Pick one open problem like, "How do users control who can see their calendars?"), think of a way to solve it ("they can mark them as 'public', or invite specific people to view them"), figure out how to implement your solution, then revisit any previous decisions that your most recent decisions affect. Design is a very cyclic process: every time you add or change one thing, no matter how small, you may need to go back and re-design other things.

There are three traps here for the inexperienced. The first is analysis paralysis, where you find yourself revisiting issues over and over again without ever making any decisions that stick. The second is not invented here syndrome, which leads people to say, "Sure, there's a library that does that, but I didn't write it so I'm not going to use it." Its complement is already invented here syndrome, in which someone says, "Look, we've already made a decision about that, let's not reopen the debate." Any of these can sink a project; together, they show why it's so hard to teach design, since what I'm basically saying is, "Argue enough, but not too much."

How experts do it

One of the biggest differences between experts and non-experts in any field is how quickly experts can rule out possibilities Schon1984. Whether it is software design, chess, or medical diagnosis, novices check to see if their plan will work; experts, on the other hand, search for a refutation—a reason why it won't—so that they can narrow their focus as early as possible. One way to do this is to jump back and forth between a high-level plan and its low-level consequences; if one of those consequences reveals a flaw in the plan, they go back to the high level and make a correction. Doing this efficiently depends on having experience of past failures so that you know how a good idea might fail in practice.

Design for Evolution

How easily we can swap one component for another in order to test a system is one way to tell how well designed that system is (). Another is how easily we can modify or extend the system to do new things. If our design is perfect, we can implement changes by adding code without modifying what's already there. This is called the Open-Closed Principle: systems should be open for extension, but closed for modification.

For example, suppose that we are simulating a hospital emergency room. We could write the function that simulates someone's response to a cardiac arrest like this:

def handle_cardiac_arrest(all_actors):
    for actor in all_actors:
        if actor.kind == 'nurse':
        elif actor.kind == 'doctor':
   something else...
   some default action...

(The term actor is often used in simulations to mean "anything that can take actions".) If we want to add another kind of actor, we need to modify this code to add another elif clause, and if we want to add another kind of event, we have to write another function and make sure we have an if or elif for kind of actor.

A better design is to create a base class that defines a generic behavior for all actors:

class Actor:
    def __init__(...): generic setup...
    def handle_cardiac_arrest(self):
        pass # by default, don't do anything

and then derive one class for each type of actor:

class Nurse(Actor):
    def handle_cardiac_arrest(self): something...

class Doctor(Actor):
    def handle_cardiac_arrest(self): something else...

We can then ask each actor to handle the cardiac arrest however they're supposed to:

def handle_cardiac_arrest(all_actors):
    for actor in all_actors:

If we want to add another kind of actor, we derive another class from Actor and override methods to give it the behaviors we want: the general handle_cardiac_arrest function doesn't need to change.

This design isn't perfect, though. If we want to add another kind of event, we need to define a default response to it by adding a method to Actor, then override that method for the specific kinds of actors that have different behaviors. A more sophisticated design would define classes to represent events and select a method to call based on the event:

class Actor:
    def __init__(...): generic setup...
    def handle_event(self, event):
        if self.has_handler_for(event):
            handler = self.get_handler_for(event)

This design makes it harder to figure out exactly who's doing what, but ensures that we can add new actors and new events without having to go back and change old code.

But how can we be sure that our new code is going to do what the old code expects? The answer is a technique called design by contract. Every function or method specifies pre-conditions that must be true of its inputs in order for it to run successfully and post-conditions that are guaranteed to be true of its results. Type declarations are the most common kind of pre-condition and post-condition: they say things like, "The input must be a list of strings," and, "The output is a single string." More sophisticated pre-conditions and post-conditions can be written as assertions that (for example) check that all the input strings are at least one character long or that the output is one of the input strings.

Design by contract gets its name from the fact that a function's pre-conditions and post-conditions work like a business contract: if the caller guarantees that the inputs meet the pre-conditions, then the function guarantees that the output meets the post-conditions. Contracts like these are particularly useful when overriding methods or when software evolves:

Pre-conditions can only be made weaker.
This rule is another way of saying that the new version of the code can only put fewer restrictions on the inputs it accepts, or equivalently, it must handle everything the old version could, but may handle more. If code breaks this rule, then it might fail in cases where the old code ran.
Post-conditions can only be made stronger.
This rule ensures that the new function can't produce anything that the old function might not have produced, and ensures that anything using the function's output will be able to handle everything the new version gives it.

A programming language called Eiffel demonstrated how powerful design by contract can be. Most other languages don't support it directly; we can emulate it by putting assertions at the start and end of our functions and methods, but there's no guarantee they'll be checked or enforced in derived versions.

Design for Accessibility

Close your eyes and try to navigate this website. Now imagine having to do that all day, every day. Imagine trying to use a computer when your hands are crippled by arthritis. Better yet, don't imagine it: have one of your teammates tape some popsicle sticks to your fingers so you can't bend them and then see how easy it is to use something like Slack.

Making software accessible doesn't just help people with obvious disabilities: as Johnson2017 points out, the population is aging, and everything you do to help people who are deaf also helps people who are gradually losing their hearing.

The best short guide I have found for accessible design is this set of posters from the UK Home Office. Each one lays out a few simple do's and don'ts that will help make your software accessible to people who are neurodivergent, use screen readers, are dyslexic, have physical or motor challenges, or are hard of hearing. You can also use tools like WebAIM WAVE to check for common problems, most of which are easy to fix. It only takes a few minutes, it's the compassionate thing to do, and almost every change you make will also make the software easier to test and maintain.


Rule #3 of Taschuk2017 is, "Make common operations easy to control." Like testing, it's a lot easier to do if you design programs with this goal in mind, and programs that are designed to do this tend to be easier to understand, test, and extend.

You can make programs controllable in at least three different ways:

Command-line options.
Enable users to run it and control its operation from the command line. For example, the -a or --all option could tell the program to process all files even if there are errors, while -o or --output could specify the name of the output directory.
Configuration files.
Have the program load settings from one or more configuration files. This option saves them typing in common settings over and over, and also provides a record of exactly what the settings were (which can be helpful when testing).
Configuration files are often layered: the program reads a global configuration file with general settings, then a user-specific configuration file (typically in the user's home directory) with the user's preferences, and finally a project-specific file. Those settings can then often be overridden using command-line options. And if you are going to read settings from files, do the compassionate thing and teach your programs how to write their complete settings to a file as well. These files make it easier for people to reproduce their work and are an invaluable aid to debugging.
A programming interface.
If the application is written as a set of libraries, each with its own API, then the interface the general user sees can be written as a thin layer that combines those libraries. Users can then write code of their own to control the libraries if they want to extend the application's behavior.

The last of these is what we mean by saying that something is scriptable. One of the things that made Microsoft Office so popular was users' ability to write scripts for Word, Excel, and other tools in Visual Basic. Today, many games include a scripting language like Lua so that users can write modifications right then and there. Scripting is particularly helpful when you want to test a user interface, since it allows you to write short programs that trigger events like "click this button" or "enter this password" and to interrogate the system's state afterward.

Merely useful

Why do we call them scripts instead of programs, and why do we call it scripting instead of programming? The answer, I think, is that if everyone can do it, it can't be cool: as a computer science professor said to me once about something similar, "I realize it's popular, but it's merely useful."

The other way to script something is through an external interface. Most web applications these days provide some sort of REST API so that programs can send requests or post data via HTTP to control the app's behavior. Many of these require programs to authenticate in order to prove that they have a right to do what they want to; as soon as we're thinking about that, we need to think about the topic of the next chapter: security.

Design for Packaging

Every language and operating system has its own rules for building packages; designing software with these rules in mind makes packaging a lot easier. In Python, for example, a package consists of one or more Python source files in a specific directory structure like this:

+-- pkg_name
|   +--
|   +--

The top-level directory is named after the package. It contains a directory that is also named after the package, which contains the package's source files. To turn this into an installable package, we put the following in

from setuptools import setup

    author='Some Name',

The name and author fields are self-explanatory; the packages field lists the sub-directories containing packages (there may actually be several), and we'll talk about versioning in . Once you have this in place, you can run:

$ pip install .

to create a package.

Find Your Current Comfort Zone

When we use a low-level language, we incur the cognitive load of assembling micro-steps into something more meaningful () When we use a high-level language, we incur a similar load translating functions of functions of functions (or meta-classes templated on object factories) into actual operations on actual data.

More experienced programmers are more capable at both ends of the curve, but that's not the only thing that changes. compares a novice's comprehension curve with an expert's. Experts don't just understand more at all levels of abstraction; their preferred level has also shifted so that \(\sqrt{x^2 | y^2}\) is actually more readable than the medieval expression "the side of the square whose area is the sum of the areas of the two squares whose sides are given by the first part and the second part".

Comprehension curves
How the relationship between abstraction and comprehension differs for novices and experts.

This difference implies that the software that is quickest for a novice to comprehend will almost certainly be different from the software that an expert can understand most quickly, which is why design rules like Don't Repeat Yourself should be followed by the word "however". Duplicating some code so that it's right in front of the reader may help people at one level of development, even if it makes long-term maintenance more difficult for people at another level. In the end, the only correct answer to the question, "What's the best way to design this?" is, "For whom?"