My favourite design tools - part 3: Decline of UML

by newuser09876 13. February 2014 07:21


During the 80s and 90s there were around a dozen popular notations for graphically describing the relationship between objects. Booch’s notation mapped closely to C++. Coad’s notation was an extension to the modelling techniques he defined for databases. When Booch, Jacobson and Rumbaugh joined forces and merged their notations into the Unified Modelling Language it quickly the standard for Graphical Object Orientated Design and soon it emerged as a core tool for enterprise development.

However the last decade UML is gradually fallen out of favour as and its decline has been heavily influenced by the rise of Agile development and the popularity of dynamic languages such as Javascript. UML itself has ballooned in complexity as tool vendors have tried to move the language from a design to implementation tool.

Big Design Up Front

Waterfall practices in the 80s and 90s resulted in many enterprise environments devaluing the contribution of programmers in their development teams. Instead of the “coders” doing design work this role was performed by architecture teams who would deliver UML or Entity Relationship diagrams and developers were relegated to being low skilled implementers. These diagrams not only showed the relationships between entities but also fully detailed their attributes and would take many months of analysis to complete. Further since the source of truth was the diagrams and not the source code large amounts of effort were spent trying to keep the diagrams and source code aligned.

As Agile started to emerge across the industry developers were rightly given the freedom to implement requirements as they saw fit. Further refactoring techniques now mean that objects are continually being renamed, split, merged and deleted and trying to keep the UML diagrams aligned with code base is ultimately a fruitless exercise.

Feature driven development

Team that use a story or feature driven development approach naturally build up the systems capability in increments. This effectively means that only a small number of objects are being created during each iteration and thus the amount of design work required is far lower.

Rise of dynamic languages

Whether an object was created within a dynamic or static language its makeup is still defined by its fields, properties, methods and its relationship with other objects. Hence UML can still be valuable to model backend server side components in a node.js, Ruby or Python project it can also be a useful aid in modelling complex interactions within a tree of View Models on the front end.

However UML will always be relegated to a design tool only in a dynamic context as it is extremely difficult to provide a quality round tripping experience that will correctly push changes from source back into the graphical model.

UML complexity has increased

UML vendors have had the capability to round tripping UML graphical model and the source code for over a decade. By its very nature the graphical model will always be a high level abstraction of the underlying source code. To reduce the information lost in the model UML been continually expanded to provide lower level primitives. Eventually this has resulted in Model Drive Architecture where the UML model itself becomes an executable as it can fully describe the problem domain. For teams that aren’t using MDA and thus do to need the low level UML primitives UML has significantly grown in complexity without providing a tangible benefit. In comparison to the late 90s where UML diagrams were universally understood across the industry it is now fragmented.

UML doesn’t impart/impose good design principles

By design UML doesn’t impose design rules on the models that are being created. An overly coupled design with low cohesion is just as valid as one with strong interface boundaries and high cohesion. Some tools have added wizards that generate objects based on common design patterns but ultimately the designer needs to understand how and when these patterns should be used. Further most of the patterns are designed to reduce complexity in a growing code base and a developer will refactor towards the pattern as opposed to the design including the pattern from the start.

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