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Introduction to Design Techniques
A Look at the Role of Design Within the Software Development Process
by Bill Venners
First Published in JavaWorld, January 1998

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The software development process
In my experience, the process of software development tends to be rather chaotic. Team members come and go, requirements change, schedules change, entire projects get canceled, entire companies go out of business, and so on. The programmer's job is to successfully navigate this chaos and in the end produce a "quality" product in a "timely" manner.

Besides being chaotic, the software development process also tends to be rather iterative. As a software product is developed, it continuously evolves based on feedback from many parties. This iterative process works from release to release (each release is one iteration) and within the development cycle of a single release. From release to release, for example, the feedback of customers with the current version indicates which bug-fixes and enhancements are most important to make in the next version. Within the development cycle of a single release, the vision of the end target is continuously adjusted by forces within the company as development progresses.

Despite the chaos and iteration, however, I have found that most development teams try to enforce some structure on their development efforts. For the purposes of this column, I'll loosely divide the software development process of a single release cycle into these four phases:

  1. Specification
  2. Design
  3. Implementation
  4. Integration and test

With these four phases I intend to capture a structure that I have observed in most software development projects. Because each company is different, each team is different, and each project is different, these four phases form only a rough outline of a typical development cycle. In practice, some phases may be skipped or may happen in a different order. And because the iterative nature of software development tends to bubble up through any imposed structure, these phases may to some extent overlap or bleed into one another.

When I talk about design in the Design Techniques column, I am talking about the activities that take place during step two of the above list. To give you a better idea of what I mean by each phase, I describe each individually in the next four sections.

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