Thursday, 1 May 2008

AIR UML tool : A clearer concept

To save any confusion - this is just a graphic, a jpg exported from a flash file which has absolutely no functionality and is purely intended to help rough out an interface concept.

I started thinking in more depth about what I personally needed this tool to be able to do, given that I'm pretty happy with my current working strategy but it just feels like there's a fair bit of friction in the system in terms of duplicating work.

So, I went right back to basics - my current process, which I'm sure is not unique, is to use index file cards for a fair bit of my modeling.  On one side I scribble the CRC stuff (Class Responsibilities and Collaborations).  On the other I outline the most important public properties and functions.

At a later stage I do a more formal UML diagram in Omnigraffle, using the UML-General template.  Then, once I'm satisfied that it's close enough to what I'll finally need, I create skeleton AS3 classes in Flash or Flex, and then write in skeleton asDoc comments ... both of which are rather tedious.

Inevitably the coding process throws up unforeseen stuff and functions, structure or even the whole model can be subject to changes.  Unless I am feeling particularly disciplined, many of these changes go mostly undocumented, usually only being written up if the code is then applied to a new project or handed over to a new developer.

I no longer work as part of a large team of developers, so I've only my own experience to call upon, but if there's one thing I've learned in my time as an engineer (in both the physical and the software world) it is to begin by making a product that a single concrete person needs, and not a product that doesn't actually satisfactorily meet the needs of any of a whole bunch of abstract people :)

Where I've landed is that this tool should be like a digital version of my index file card box, which integrates my workflow all the way through from creating CRCs to assembling them into a project, to defining public interfaces on the flip side, to drawing that up in a UML sketching tool, to defining private functionality, to adding comments to explain usage, to generating AS3 skeleton functions with asDoc compatible comments and getter / setter functions where desired ... it has to take care of that whole shebang.

That process has to be 2 way, preferably with 'intelligent' (the magic word for 'haven't defined the rules for this yet') syncing.

Returning to my dodgy graphic at the top - I'm no designer, so will be looking to get some major input on that side - the concept is that you have a bunch of index cards on screen, you click the little arrow in the top right corner to flip 'em round.  They expand and contract to give enough space for the properties / functions.  All the standard spec of UML 2 is available to you and they also have a neat interface (represented by the G S on the right of the properties) for requesting that Getter / Setter functions be created for those properties. 

I'm sure there will be other, sexier, less geeky skins that people want to add later but this one seems like a great one to kick off with because it focusses the mind on what we're trying to do - take the friction out of a tried-and-tested way of working, not revolutionise the whole process!

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