Code Complete: Design in Construction

  • 6/9/2004

5.3 Design Building Blocks: Heuristics

Software developers tend to like our answers cut and dried: "Do A, B, and C, and X, Y, Z will follow every time." We take pride in learning arcane sets of steps that produce desired effects, and we become annoyed when instructions don't work as advertised. This desire for deterministic behavior is highly appropriate to detailed computer programming, where that kind of strict attention to detail makes or breaks a program. But software design is a much different story.

Because design is nondeterministic, skillful application of an effective set of heuristics is the core activity in good software design. The following subsections describe a number of heuristics—ways to think about a design that sometime produce good design insights. You might think of heuristics as the guides for the trials in "trial and error." You undoubtedly have run across some of these before. Consequently, the following subsections describe each of the heuristics in terms of Software's Primary Technical Imperative: managing complexity.

Find Real-World Objects

The first and most popular approach to identifying design alternatives is the "by the book" object-oriented approach, which focuses on identifying real-world and synthetic objects.

  • Ask not first what the system does; ask WHAT it does it to!

  • —Bertrand Meyer

The steps in designing with objects are

  • Identify the objects and their attributes (methods and data).

  • Determine what can be done to each object.

  • Determine what each object is allowed to do to other objects.

  • Determine the parts of each object that will be visible to other objects—which parts will be public and which will be private.

  • Define each object's public interface.

These steps aren't necessarily performed in order, and they're often repeated. Iteration is important. Each of these steps is summarized below.

Identify the objects and their attributes. Computer programs are usually based on real-world entities. For example, you could base a time-billing system on real-world employees, clients, timecards, and bills. Figure 5-6 shows an object-oriented view of such a billing system.

Figure 5-6

Figure 5-6. This billing system is composed of four major objects. The objects have been simplified for this example

Identifying the objects' attributes is no more complicated than identifying the objects themselves. Each object has characteristics that are relevant to the computer program. For example, in the time-billing system, an employee object has a name, a title, and a billing rate. A client object has a name, a billing address, and an account balance. A bill object has a billing amount, a client name, a billing date, and so on.

Objects in a graphical user interface system would include windows, dialog boxes, buttons, fonts, and drawing tools. Further examination of the problem domain might produce better choices for software objects than a one-to-one mapping to real-world objects, but the real-world objects are a good place to start.

Determine what can be done to each object. A variety of operations can be performed on each object. In the billing system shown in Figure 5-6, an employee object could have a change in title or billing rate, a client object could have its name or billing address changed, and so on.

Determine what each object is allowed to do to other objects. This step is just what it sounds like. The two generic things objects can do to each other are containment and inheritance. Which objects can contain which other objects? Which objects can inherit from which other objects? In Figure 5-6, a timecard object can contain an employee object and a client object, and a bill can contain one or more timecards. In addition, a bill can indicate that a client has been billed, and a client can enter payments against a bill. A more complicated system would include additional interactions.

Determine the parts of each object that will be visible to other objects. One of the key design decisions is identifying the parts of an object that should be made public and those that should be kept private. This decision has to be made for both data and methods.

Define each object's interfaces. Define the formal, syntactic, programming-language-level interfaces to each object. The data and methods the object exposes to every other object is called the object's "public interface." The parts of the object that it exposes to derived objects via inheritance is called the object's "protected interface." Think about both kinds of interfaces.

When you finish going through the steps to achieve a top-level object-oriented system organization, you'll iterate in two ways. You'll iterate on the top-level system organization to get a better organization of classes. You'll also iterate on each of the classes you've defined, driving the design of each class to a more detailed level.

Form Consistent Abstractions

Abstraction is the ability to engage with a concept while safely ignoring some of its details—handling different details at different levels. Any time you work with an aggregate, you're working with an abstraction. If you refer to an object as a "house" rather than a combination of glass, wood, and nails, you're making an abstraction. If you refer to a collection of houses as a "town," you're making another abstraction.

Base classes are abstractions that allow you to focus on common attributes of a set of derived classes and ignore the details of the specific classes while you're working on the base class. A good class interface is an abstraction that allows you to focus on the interface without needing to worry about the internal workings of the class. The interface to a well-designed routine provides the same benefit at a lower level of detail, and the interface to a well-designed package or subsystem provides that benefit at a higher level of detail.

From a complexity point of view, the principal benefit of abstraction is that it allows you to ignore irrelevant details. Most real-world objects are already abstractions of some kind. As just mentioned, a house is an abstraction of windows, doors, siding, wiring, plumbing, insulation, and a particular way of organizing them. A door is in turn an abstraction of a particular arrangement of a rectangular piece of material with hinges and a doorknob. And the doorknob is an abstraction of a particular formation of brass, nickel, iron, or steel.

People use abstraction continuously. If you had to deal with individual wood fibers, varnish molecules, and steel molecules every time you used your front door, you'd hardly make it in or out of your house each day. As Figure 5-7 suggests, abstraction is a big part of how we deal with complexity in the real world.

Figure 5-7

Figure 5-7. Abstraction allows you to take a simpler view of a complex concept

Software developers sometimes build systems at the wood-fiber, varnish-molecule, and steel-molecule level. This makes the systems overly complex and intellectually hard to manage. When programmers fail to provide larger programming abstractions, the system itself sometimes fails to make it through the front door.

Good programmers create abstractions at the routine-interface level, class-interface level, and package-interface level—in other words, the doorknob level, door level, and house level—and that supports faster and safer programming.

Encapsulate Implementation Details

Encapsulation picks up where abstraction leaves off. Abstraction says, "You're allowed to look at an object at a high level of detail." Encapsulation says, "Furthermore, you aren't allowed to look at an object at any other level of detail."

Continuing with the housing-materials analogy: encapsulation is a way of saying that you can look at the outside of the house but you can't get close enough to make out the door's details. You are allowed to know that there's a door, and you're allowed to know whether the door is open or closed, but you're not allowed to know whether the door is made of wood, fiberglass, steel, or some other material, and you're certainly not allowed to look at each individual wood fiber.

As Figure 5-8 suggests, encapsulation helps to manage complexity by forbidding you to look at the complexity. The section titled "Good Encapsulation" in Good Class Interfaces provides more background on encapsulation as it applies to class design.

Figure 5-8

Figure 5-8. Encapsulation says that, not only are you allowed to take a simpler view of a complex concept, you are not allowed to look at any of the details of the complex concept. What you see is what you get—it's all you get!

Inherit—When Inheritance Simplifies the Design

In designing a software system, you'll often find objects that are much like other objects, except for a few differences. In an accounting system, for instance, you might have both full-time and part-time employees. Most of the data associated with both kinds of employees is the same, but some is different. In object-oriented programming, you can define a general type of employee and then define full-time employees as general employees, except for a few differences, and part-time employees also as general employees, except for a few differences. When an operation on an employee doesn't depend on the type of employee, the operation is handled as if the employee were just a general employee. When the operation depends on whether the employee is full-time or part-time, the operation is handled differently.

Defining similarities and differences among such objects is called "inheritance" because the specific part-time and full-time employees inherit characteristics from the general-employee type.

The benefit of inheritance is that it works synergistically with the notion of abstraction. Abstraction deals with objects at different levels of detail. Recall the door that was a collection of certain kinds of molecules at one level, a collection of wood fibers at the next, and something that keeps burglars out of your house at the next level. Wood has certain properties—for example, you can cut it with a saw or glue it with wood glue—and two-by-fours or cedar shingles have the general properties of wood as well as some specific properties of their own.

Inheritance simplifies programming because you write a general routine to handle anything that depends on a door's general properties and then write specific routines to handle specific operations on specific kinds of doors. Some operations, such as Open() or Close(), might apply regardless of whether the door is a solid door, interior door, exterior door, screen door, French door, or sliding glass door. The ability of a language to support operations like Open() or Close() without knowing until run time what kind of door you're dealing with is called "polymorphism." Object-oriented languages such as C++, Java, and later versions of Microsoft Visual Basic support inheritance and polymorphism.

Inheritance is one of object-oriented programming's most powerful tools. It can provide great benefits when used well, and it can do great damage when used naively. For details, see "Inheritance ("is a" Relationships)?" in Design and Implementation Issues.

Hide Secrets (Information Hiding)

Information hiding is part of the foundation of both structured design and object-oriented design. In structured design, the notion of "black boxes" comes from information hiding. In object-oriented design, it gives rise to the concepts of encapsulation and modularity and it is associated with the concept of abstraction. Information hiding is one of the seminal ideas in software development, and so this subsection explores it in depth.

Information hiding first came to public attention in a paper published by David Parnas in 1972 called "On the Criteria to Be Used in Decomposing Systems Into Modules." Information hiding is characterized by the idea of "secrets," design and implementation decisions that a software developer hides in one place from the rest of a program.

In the 20th Anniversary edition of The Mythical Man Month, Fred Brooks concluded that his criticism of information hiding was one of the few ways in which the first edition of his book was wrong. "Parnas was right, and I was wrong about information hiding," he proclaimed (Brooks 1995). Barry Boehm reported that information hiding was a powerful technique for eliminating rework, and he pointed out that it was particularly effective in incremental, high-change environments (Boehm 1987).

Information hiding is a particularly powerful heuristic for Software's Primary Technical Imperative because, beginning with its name and throughout its details, it emphasizes hiding complexity.

Secrets and the Right to Privacy

In information hiding, each class (or package or routine) is characterized by the design or construction decisions that it hides from all other classes. The secret might be an area that's likely to change, the format of a file, the way a data type is implemented, or an area that needs to be walled off from the rest of the program so that errors in that area cause as little damage as possible. The class's job is to keep this information hidden and to protect its own right to privacy. Minor changes to a system might affect several routines within a class, but they should not ripple beyond the class interface.

One key task in designing a class is deciding which features should be known outside the class and which should remain secret. A class might use 25 routines and expose only 5 of them, using the other 20 internally. A class might use several data types and expose no information about them. This aspect of class design is also known as "visibility" since it has to do with which features of the class are "visible" or "exposed" outside the class.

  • Strive for class interfaces that are complete and minimal.

  • —Scott Meyers

The interface to a class should reveal as little as possible about its inner workings. As shown in Figure 5-9, a class is a lot like an iceberg: seven-eighths is under water, and you can see only the one-eighth that's above the surface.

Figure 5-9

Figure 5-9. A good class interface is like the tip of an iceberg, leaving most of the class unexposed

Designing the class interface is an iterative process just like any other aspect of design. If you don't get the interface right the first time, try a few more times until it stabilizes. If it doesn't stabilize, you need to try a different approach.

An Example of Information Hiding

Suppose you have a program in which each object is supposed to have a unique ID stored in a member variable called id. One design approach would be to use integers for the IDs and to store the highest ID assigned so far in a global variable called g_maxId. As each new object is allocated, perhaps in each object's constructor, you could simply use the id = ++g_maxId statement, which would guarantee a unique id, and it would add the absolute minimum of code in each place an object is created. What could go wrong with that?

A lot of things could go wrong. What if you want to reserve ranges of IDs for special purposes? What if you want to use nonsequential IDs to improve security? What if you want to be able to reuse the IDs of objects that have been destroyed? What if you want to add an assertion that fires when you allocate more IDs than the maximum number you've anticipated? If you allocated IDs by spreading id = ++g_maxId statements throughout your program, you would have to change code associated with every one of those statements. And, if your program is multithreaded, this approach won't be thread-safe.

The way that new IDs are created is a design decision that you should hide. If you use the phrase ++g_maxId throughout your program, you expose the way a new ID is created, which is simply by incrementing g_maxId. If instead you put the id = NewId() statement throughout your program, you hide the information about how new IDs are created. Inside the NewId() routine you might still have just one line of code, return ( ++g_maxId ) or its equivalent, but if you later decide to reserve certain ranges of IDs for special purposes or to reuse old IDs, you could make those changes within the NewId() routine itself—without touching dozens or hundreds of id = NewId() statements. No matter how complicated the revisions inside NewId() might become, they wouldn't affect any other part of the program.

Now suppose you discover you need to change the type of the ID from an integer to a string. If you've spread variable declarations like int id throughout your program, your use of the NewId() routine won't help. You'll still have to go through your program and make dozens or hundreds of changes.

An additional secret to hide is the ID's type. By exposing the fact that IDs are integers, you encourage programmers to perform integer operations like >, <, = on them. In C++, you could use a simple typedef to declare your IDs to be of IdType—a userdefined type that resolves to int—rather than directly declaring them to be of type int. Alternatively, in C++ and other languages you could create a simple IdType class. Once again, hiding a design decision makes a huge difference in the amount of code affected by a change.


Information hiding is useful at all levels of design, from the use of named constants instead of literals, to creation of data types, to class design, routine design, and subsystem design.

Two Categories of Secrets

Secrets in information hiding fall into two general camps:

  • Hiding complexity so that your brain doesn't have to deal with it unless you're specifically concerned with it

  • Hiding sources of change so that when change occurs, the effects are localized

Sources of complexity include complicated data types, file structures, boolean tests, involved algorithms, and so on. A comprehensive list of sources of change is described later in this chapter.

Barriers to Information Hiding

In a few instances, information hiding is truly impossible, but most of the barriers to information hiding are mental blocks built up from the habitual use of other techniques.

Excessive distribution of information. One common barrier to information hiding is an excessive distribution of information throughout a system. You might have hard-coded the literal 100 throughout a system. Using 100 as a literal decentralizes references to it. It's better to hide the information in one place, in a constant MAX_EMPLOYEES perhaps, whose value is changed in only one place.

Another example of excessive information distribution is interleaving interaction with human users throughout a system. If the mode of interaction changes—say, from a GUI interface to a command line interface—virtually all the code will have to be modified. It's better to concentrate user interaction in a single class, package, or subsystem you can change without affecting the whole system.

Yet another example would be a global data element—perhaps an array of employee data with 1000 elements maximum that's accessed throughout a program. If the program uses the global data directly, information about the data item's implementation—such as the fact that it's an array and has a maximum of 1000 elements—will be spread throughout the program. If the program uses the data only through access routines, only the access routines will know the implementation details.

Circular dependencies. A more subtle barrier to information hiding is circular dependencies, as when a routine in class A calls a routine in class B, and a routine in class B calls a routine in class A.

Avoid such dependency loops. They make it hard to test a system because you can't test either class A or class B until at least part of the other is ready.

Class data mistaken for global data. If you're a conscientious programmer, one of the barriers to effective information hiding might be thinking of class data as global data and avoiding it because you want to avoid the problems associated with global data. While the road to programming hell is paved with global variables, class data presents far fewer risks.

Global data is generally subject to two problems: routines operate on global data without knowing that other routines are operating on it, and routines are aware that other routines are operating on the global data but they don't know exactly what they're doing to it. Class data isn't subject to either of these problems. Direct access to the data is restricted to a few routines organized into a single class. The routines are aware that other routines operate on the data, and they know exactly which other routines they are.

Of course, this whole discussion assumes that your system makes use of well-designed, small classes. If your program is designed to use huge classes that contain dozens of routines each, the distinction between class data and global data will begin to blur and class data will be subject to many of the same problems as global data.

Perceived performance penalties. A final barrier to information hiding can be an attempt to avoid performance penalties at both the architectural and the coding levels. You don't need to worry at either level. At the architectural level, the worry is unnecessary because architecting a system for information hiding doesn't conflict with architecting it for performance. If you keep both information hiding and performance in mind, you can achieve both objectives.

The more common worry is at the coding level. The concern is that accessing data items indirectly incurs run-time performance penalties for additional levels of object instantiations, routine calls, and so on. This concern is premature. Until you can measure the system's performance and pinpoint the bottlenecks, the best way to prepare for code-level performance work is to create a highly modular design. When you detect hot spots later, you can optimize individual classes and routines without affecting the rest of the system.

Value of Information Hiding


Information hiding is one of the few theoretical techniques that has indisputably proven its value in practice, which has been true for a long time (Boehm 1987a). Large programs that use information hiding were found years ago to be easier to modify—by a factor of 4—than programs that don't (Korson and Vaishnavi 1986). Moreover, information hiding is part of the foundation of both structured design and object-oriented design.

Information hiding has unique heuristic power, a unique ability to inspire effective design solutions. Traditional object-oriented design provides the heuristic power of modeling the world in objects, but object thinking wouldn't help you avoid declaring the ID as an int instead of an IdType. The object-oriented designer would ask, "Should an ID be treated as an object?" Depending on the project's coding standards, a "Yes" answer might mean that the programmer has to write a constructor, destructor, copy operator, and assignment operator; comment it all; and place it under configuration control. Most programmers would decide, "No, it isn't worth creating a whole class just for an ID. I'll just use ints."

Note what just happened. A useful design alternative, that of simply hiding the ID's data type, was not even considered. If, instead, the designer had asked, "What about the ID should be hidden?" he might well have decided to hide its type behind a simple type declaration that substitutes IdType for int. The difference between object-oriented design and information hiding in this example is more subtle than a clash of explicit rules and regulations. Object-oriented design would approve of this design decision as much as information hiding would. Rather, the difference is one of heuristics—thinking about information hiding inspires and promotes design decisions that thinking about objects does not.

Information hiding can also be useful in designing a class's public interface. The gap between theory and practice in class design is wide, and among many class designers the decision about what to put into a class's public interface amounts to deciding what interface would be the most convenient to use, which usually results in exposing as much of the class as possible. From what I've seen, some programmers would rather expose all of a class's private data than write 10 extra lines of code to keep the class's secrets intact.

Asking "What does this class need to hide?" cuts to the heart of the interface-design issue. If you can put a function or data into the class's public interface without compromising its secrets, do. Otherwise, don't.

Asking about what needs to be hidden supports good design decisions at all levels. It promotes the use of named constants instead of literals at the construction level. It helps in creating good routine and parameter names inside classes. It guides decisions about class and subsystem decompositions and interconnections at the system level.


Get into the habit of asking "What should I hide?" You'll be surprised at how many difficult design issues dissolve before your eyes.

Identify Areas Likely to Change

A study of great designers found that one attribute they had in common was their ability to anticipate change (Glass 1995). Accommodating changes is one of the most challenging aspects of good program design. The goal is to isolate unstable areas so that the effect of a change will be limited to one routine, class, or package. Here are the steps you should follow in preparing for such perturbations.

  1. Identify items that seem likely to change. If the requirements have been done well, they include a list of potential changes and the likelihood of each change. In such a case, identifying the likely changes is easy. If the requirements don't cover potential changes, see the discussion that follows of areas that are likely to change on any project.

  2. Separate items that are likely to change. Compartmentalize each volatile component identified in step 1 into its own class or into a class with other volatile components that are likely to change at the same time.

  3. Isolate items that seem likely to change. Design the interclass interfaces to be insensitive to the potential changes. Design the interfaces so that changes are limited to the inside of the class and the outside remains unaffected. Any other class using the changed class should be unaware that the change has occurred. The class's interface should protect its secrets.

Here are a few areas that are likely to change:

Business rules. Business rules tend to be the source of frequent software changes. Congress changes the tax structure, a union renegotiates its contract, or an insurance company changes its rate tables. If you follow the principle of information hiding, logic based on these rules won't be strewn throughout your program. The logic will stay hidden in a single dark corner of the system until it needs to be changed.

Hardware dependencies. Examples of hardware dependencies include interfaces to screens, printers, keyboards, mice, disk drives, sound facilities, and communications devices. Isolate hardware dependencies in their own subsystem or class. Isolating such dependencies helps when you move the program to a new hardware environment. It also helps initially when you're developing a program for volatile hardware. You can write software that simulates interaction with specific hardware, have the hardware-interface subsystem use the simulator as long as the hardware is unstable or unavailable, and then unplug the hardware-interface subsystem from the simulator and plug the subsystem into the hardware when it's ready to use.

Input and output. At a slightly higher level of design than raw hardware interfaces, input/output is a volatile area. If your application creates its own data files, the file format will probably change as your application becomes more sophisticated. User-level input and output formats will also change—the positioning of fields on the page, the number of fields on each page, the sequence of fields, and so on. In general, it's a good idea to examine all external interfaces for possible changes.

Nonstandard language features. Most language implementations contain handy, nonstandard extensions. Using the extensions is a double-edged sword because they might not be available in a different environment, whether the different environment is different hardware, a different vendor's implementation of the language, or a new version of the language from the same vendor.

If you use nonstandard extensions to your programming language, hide those extensions in a class of their own so that you can replace them with your own code when you move to a different environment. Likewise, if you use library routines that aren't available in all environments, hide the actual library routines behind an interface that works just as well in another environment.

Difficult design and construction areas. It's a good idea to hide difficult design and construction areas because they might be done poorly and you might need to do them again. Compartmentalize them and minimize the impact their bad design or construction might have on the rest of the system.

Status variables. Status variables indicate the state of a program and tend to be changed more frequently than most other data. In a typical scenario, you might originally define an error-status variable as a boolean variable and decide later that it would be better implemented as an enumerated type with the values ErrorType_None, ErrorType_Warning, and ErrorType_Fatal.

You can add at least two levels of flexibility and readability to your use of status variables:

  • Don't use a boolean variable as a status variable. Use an enumerated type instead. It's common to add a new state to a status variable, and adding a new type to an enumerated type requires a mere recompilation rather than a major revision of every line of code that checks the variable.

  • Use access routines rather than checking the variable directly. By checking the access routine rather than the variable, you allow for the possibility of more sophisticated state detection. For example, if you wanted to check combinations of an error-state variable and a current-function-state variable, it would be easy to do if the test were hidden in a routine and hard to do if it were a complicated test hard-coded throughout the program.

Data-size constraints. When you declare an array of size 100, you're exposing information to the world that the world doesn't need to see. Defend your right to privacy! Information hiding isn't always as complicated as a whole class. Sometimes it's as simple as using a named constant such as MAX_EMPLOYEES to hide a 100.

Anticipating Different Degrees of Change

When thinking about potential changes to a system, design the system so that the effect or scope of the change is proportional to the chance that the change will occur. If a change is likely, make sure that the system can accommodate it easily. Only extremely unlikely changes should be allowed to have drastic consequences for more than one class in a system. Good designers also factor in the cost of anticipating change. If a change is not terribly likely but easy to plan for, you should think harder about anticipating it than if it isn't very likely and is difficult to plan for.

A good technique for identifying areas likely to change is first to identify the minimal subset of the program that might be of use to the user. The subset makes up the core of the system and is unlikely to change. Next, define minimal increments to the system. They can be so small that they seem trivial. As you consider functional changes, be sure also to consider qualitative changes: making the program thread-safe, making it localizable, and so on. These areas of potential improvement constitute potential changes to the system; design these areas using the principles of information hiding. By identifying the core first, you can see which components are really add-ons and then extrapolate and hide improvements from there.

Keep Coupling Loose

Coupling describes how tightly a class or routine is related to other classes or routines. The goal is to create classes and routines with small, direct, visible, and flexible relations to other classes and routines, which is known as "loose coupling." The concept of coupling applies equally to classes and routines, so for the rest of this discussion I'll use the word "module" to refer to both classes and routines.

Good coupling between modules is loose enough that one module can easily be used by other modules. Model railroad cars are coupled by opposing hooks that latch when pushed together. Connecting two cars is easy—you just push the cars together. Imagine how much more difficult it would be if you had to screw things together, or connect a set of wires, or if you could connect only certain kinds of cars to certain other kinds of cars. The coupling of model railroad cars works because it's as simple as possible. In software, make the connections among modules as simple as possible.

Try to create modules that depend little on other modules. Make them detached, as business associates are, rather than attached, as Siamese twins are. A routine like sin() is loosely coupled because everything it needs to know is passed in to it with one value representing an angle in degrees. A routine such as InitVars( var 1, var2, var3, …, varN ) is more tightly coupled because, with all the variables it must pass, the calling module practically knows what is happening inside InitVars(). Two classes that depend on each other's use of the same global data are even more tightly coupled.

Coupling Criteria

Here are several criteria to use in evaluating coupling between modules:

Size. Size refers to the number of connections between modules. With coupling, small is beautiful because it's less work to connect other modules to a module that has a smaller interface. A routine that takes one parameter is more loosely coupled to modules that call it than a routine that takes six parameters. A class with four well-defined public methods is more loosely coupled to modules that use it than a class that exposes 37 public methods.

Visibility. Visibility refers to the prominence of the connection between two modules. Programming is not like being in the CIA; you don't get credit for being sneaky. It's more like advertising; you get lots of credit for making your connections as blatant as possible. Passing data in a parameter list is making an obvious connection and is therefore good. Modifying global data so that another module can use that data is a sneaky connection and is therefore bad. Documenting the global-data connection makes it more obvious and is slightly better.

Flexibility. Flexibility refers to how easily you can change the connections between modules. Ideally, you want something more like the USB connector on your computer than like bare wire and a soldering gun. Flexibility is partly a product of the other coupling characteristics, but it's a little different too. Suppose you have a routine that looks up the amount of vacation an employee receives each year, given a hiring date and a job classification. Name the routine LookupVacationBenefit(). Suppose in another module you have an employee object that contains the hiring date and the job classification, among other things, and that module passes the object to LookupVacationBenefit().

From the point of view of the other criteria, the two modules would look loosely coupled. The employee connection between the two modules is visible, and there's only one connection. Now suppose that you need to use the LookupVacationBenefit() module from a third module that doesn't have an employee object but that does have a hiring date and a job classification. Suddenly LookupVacationBenefit() looks less friendly, unwilling to associate with the new module.

For the third module to use LookupVacationBenefit(), it has to know about the Employee class. It could dummy up an employee object with only two fields, but that would require internal knowledge of LookupVacationBenefit(), namely that those are the only fields it uses. Such a solution would be a kludge, and an ugly one. The second option would be to modify LookupVacationBenefit() so that it would take hiring date and job classification instead of employee. In either case, the original module turns out to be a lot less flexible than it seemed to be at first.

The happy ending to the story is that an unfriendly module can make friends if it's willing to be flexible—in this case, by changing to take hiring date and job classification specifically instead of employee.

In short, the more easily other modules can call a module, the more loosely coupled it is, and that's good because it's more flexible and maintainable. In creating a system structure, break up the program along the lines of minimal interconnectedness. If a program were a piece of wood, you would try to split it with the grain.

Kinds of Coupling

Here are the most common kinds of coupling you'll encounter.

Simple-data-parameter coupling. Two modules are simple-data-parameter coupled if all the data passed between them are of primitive data types and all the data is passed through parameter lists. This kind of coupling is normal and acceptable.

Simple-object coupling. A module is simple-object coupled to an object if it instantiates that object. This kind of coupling is fine.

Object-parameter coupling. Two modules are object-parameter coupled to each other if Object1 requires Object2 to pass it an Object3. This kind of coupling is tighter than Object1 requiring Object2 to pass it only primitive data types because it requires Object2 to know about Object3.

Semantic coupling. The most insidious kind of coupling occurs when one module makes use not of some syntactic element of another module but of some semantic knowledge of another module's inner workings. Here are some examples:

  • Module1 passes a control flag to Module2 that tells Module2 what to do. This approach requires Module1 to make assumptions about the internal workings of Module2, namely what Module2 is going to do with the control flag. If Module2 defines a specific data type for the control flag (enumerated type or object), this usage is probably OK.

  • Module2 uses global data after the global data has been modified by Module1. This approach requires Module2 to assume that Module1 has modified the data in the ways Module2 needs it to be modified, and that Module1 has been called at the right time.

  • Module1's interface states that its Module1.Initialize() routine should be called before its Module1.Routine() is called. Module2 knows that Module1.Routine() calls Module1.Initialize() anyway, so it just instantiates Module1 and calls Module1.Routine() without calling Module1.Initialize() first.

  • Module1 passes Object to Module2. Because Module1 knows that Module2 uses only three of Object's seven methods, it initializes Object only partially—with the specific data those three methods need.

  • Module1 passes BaseObject to Module2. Because Module2 knows that Module1 is really passing it DerivedObject, it casts BaseObject to DerivedObject and calls methods that are specific to DerivedObject.

Semantic coupling is dangerous because changing code in the used module can break code in the using module in ways that are completely undetectable by the compiler. When code like this breaks, it breaks in subtle ways that seem unrelated to the change made in the used module, which turns debugging into a Sisyphean task.

The point of loose coupling is that an effective module provides an additional level of abstraction—once you write it, you can take it for granted. It reduces overall program complexity and allows you to focus on one thing at a time. If using a module requires you to focus on more than one thing at once—knowledge of its internal workings, modification to global data, uncertain functionality—the abstractive power is lost and the module's ability to help manage complexity is reduced or eliminated.


Classes and routines are first and foremost intellectual tools for reducing complexity. If they're not making your job simpler, they're not doing their jobs.

Look for Common Design Patterns

Design patterns provide the cores of ready-made solutions that can be used to solve many of software's most common problems. Some software problems require solutions that are derived from first principles. But most problems are similar to past problems, and those can be solved using similar solutions, or patterns. Common patterns include Adapter, Bridge, Decorator, Facade, Factory Method, Observor, Singleton, Strategy, and Template Method. The book Design Patterns by Erich Gamma, Richard Helm, Ralph Johnson, and John Vlissides (1995) is the definitive description of design patterns.

Patterns provide several benefits that fully custom design doesn't:

Patterns reduce complexity by providing ready-made abstractions. If you say, "This code uses a Factory Method to create instances of derived classes," other programmers on your project will understand that your code involves a fairly rich set of interrelationships and programming protocols, all of which are invoked when you refer to the design pattern of Factory Method.

The Factory Method is a pattern that allows you to instantiate any class derived from a specific base class without needing to keep track of the individual derived classes anywhere but the Factory Method. For a good discussion of the Factory Method pattern, see "Replace Constructor with Factory Method" in Refactoring (Fowler 1999).

You don't have to spell out every line of code for other programmers to understand the design approach found in your code.

Patterns reduce errors by institutionalizing details of common solutions. Software design problems contain nuances that emerge fully only after the problem has been solved once or twice (or three times, or four times, or…). Because patterns represent standardized ways of solving common problems, they embody the wisdom accumulated from years of attempting to solve those problems, and they also embody the corrections to the false attempts that people have made in solving those problems.

Using a design pattern is thus conceptually similar to using library code instead of writing your own. Sure, everybody has written a custom Quicksort a few times, but what are the odds that your custom version will be fully correct on the first try? Similarly, numerous design problems are similar enough to past problems that you're better off using a prebuilt design solution than creating a novel solution.

Patterns provide heuristic value by suggesting design alternatives. A designer who's familiar with common patterns can easily run through a list of patterns and ask "Which of these patterns fits my design problem?" Cycling through a set of familiar alternatives is immeasurably easier than creating a custom design solution out of whole cloth. And the code arising from a familiar pattern will also be easier for readers of the code to understand than fully custom code would be.

Patterns streamline communication by moving the design dialog to a higher level. In addition to their complexity-management benefit, design patterns can accelerate design discussions by allowing designers to think and discuss at a larger level of granularity. If you say "I can't decide whether I should use a Creator or a Factory Method in this situation," you've communicated a great deal with just a few words—as long as you and your listener are both familiar with those patterns. Imagine how much longer it would take you to dive into the details of the code for a Creator pattern and the code for a Factory Method pattern and then compare and contrast the two approaches.

If you're not already familiar with design patterns, Table 5-1 summarizes some of the most common patterns to stimulate your interest.

Table 5-1. Popular Design Patterns



Abstract Factory

Supports creation of sets of related objects by specifying the kind of set but not the kinds of each specific object.


Converts the interface of a class to a different interface.


Builds an interface and an implementation in such a way that either can vary without the other varying.


Consists of an object that contains additional objects of its own type so that client code can interact with the top-level object and not concern itself with all the detailed objects.


Attaches responsibilities to an object dynamically, without creating specific subclasses for each possible configuration of responsibilities.


Provides a consistent interface to code that wouldn't otherwise offer a consistent interface.

Factory Method

Instantiates classes derived from a specific base class without needing to keep track of the individual derived classes anywhere but the Factory Method.


A server object that provides access to each element in a set sequentially.


Keeps multiple objects in synch with one another by making an object responsible for notifying the set of related objects about changes to any member of the set.


Provides global access to a class that has one and only one instance.


Defines a set of algorithms or behaviors that are dynamically interchangeable with each other.

Template Method

Defines the structure of an algorithm but leaves some of the detailed implementation to subclasses.

If you haven't seen design patterns before, your reaction to the descriptions in Table 5-1 might be "Sure, I already know most of these ideas." That reaction is a big part of why design patterns are valuable. Patterns are familiar to most experienced programmers, and assigning recognizable names to them supports efficient and effective communication about them.

One potential trap with patterns is force-fitting code to use a pattern. In some cases, shifting code slightly to conform to a well-recognized pattern will improve understandability of the code. But if the code has to be shifted too far, forcing it to look like a standard pattern can sometimes increase complexity.

Another potential trap with patterns is feature-itis: using a pattern because of a desire to try out a pattern rather than because the pattern is an appropriate design solution.

Overall, design patterns are a powerful tool for managing complexity. You can read more detailed descriptions in any of the good books that are listed at the end of this chapter.

Other Heuristics

The preceding sections describe the major software design heuristics. Following are a few other heuristics that might not be useful quite as often but are still worth mentioning.

Aim for Strong Cohesion

Cohesion arose from structured design and is usually discussed in the same context as coupling. Cohesion refers to how closely all the routines in a class or all the code in a routine support a central purpose—how focused the class is. Classes that contain strongly related functionality are described as having strong cohesion, and the heuristic goal is to make cohesion as strong as possible. Cohesion is a useful tool for managing complexity because the more that code in a class supports a central purpose, the more easily your brain can remember everything the code does.

Thinking about cohesion at the routine level has been a useful heuristic for decades and is still useful today. At the class level, the heuristic of cohesion has largely been subsumed by the broader heuristic of well-defined abstractions, which was discussed earlier in this chapter and in Chapter 6. Abstractions are useful at the routine level, too, but on a more even footing with cohesion at that level of detail.

Build Hierarchies

A hierarchy is a tiered information structure in which the most general or abstract representation of concepts is contained at the top of the hierarchy, with increasingly detailed, specialized representations at the hierarchy's lower levels. In software, hierarchies are found in class hierarchies, and, as Level 4 in Figure 5-2 illustrated, in routine-calling hierarchies as well.

Hierarchies have been an important tool for managing complex sets of information for at least 2000 years. Aristotle used a hierarchy to organize the animal kingdom. Humans frequently use outlines to organize complex information (like this book). Researchers have found that people generally find hierarchies to be a natural way to organize complex information. When they draw a complex object such as a house, they draw it hierarchically. First they draw the outline of the house, then the windows and doors, and then more details. They don't draw the house brick by brick, shingle by shingle, or nail by nail (Simon 1996).

Hierarchies are a useful tool for achieving Software's Primary Technical Imperative because they allow you to focus on only the level of detail you're currently concerned with. The details don't go away completely; they're simply pushed to another level so that you can think about them when you want to rather than thinking about all the details all of the time.

Formalize Class Contracts

At a more detailed level, thinking of each class's interface as a contract with the rest of the program can yield good insights. Typically, the contract is something like "If you promise to provide data x, y, and z and you promise they'll have characteristics a, b, and c, I promise to perform operations 1, 2, and 3 within constraints 8, 9, and 10." The promises the clients of the class make to the class are typically called "preconditions," and the promises the object makes to its clients are called the "postconditions."

Contracts are useful for managing complexity because, at least in theory, the object can safely ignore any noncontractual behavior. In practice, this issue is much more difficult.

Assign Responsibilities

Another heuristic is to think through how responsibilities should be assigned to objects. Asking what each object should be responsible for is similar to asking what information it should hide, but I think it can produce broader answers, which gives the heuristic unique value.

Design for Test

A thought process that can yield interesting design insights is to ask what the system will look like if you design it to facilitate testing. Do you need to separate the user interface from the rest of the code so that you can exercise it independently? Do you need to organize each subsystem so that it minimizes dependencies on other subsystems? Designing for test tends to result in more formalized class interfaces, which is generally beneficial.

Avoid Failure

Civil engineering professor Henry Petroski wrote an interesting book, Design Paradigms: Case Histories of Error and Judgment in Engineering (Petroski 1994), that chronicles the history of failures in bridge design. Petroski argues that many spectacular bridge failures have occurred because of focusing on previous successes and not adequately considering possible failure modes. He concludes that failures like the Tacoma Narrows bridge could have been avoided if the designers had carefully considered the ways the bridge might fail and not just copied the attributes of other successful designs.

The high-profile security lapses of various well-known systems the past few years make it hard to disagree that we should find ways to apply Petroski's design-failure insights to software.

Choose Binding Time Consciously

Binding time refers to the time a specific value is bound to a variable. Code that binds early tends to be simpler, but it also tends to be less flexible. Sometimes you can get a good design insight from asking questions like these: What if I bound these values earlier? What if I bound these values later? What if I initialized this table right here in the code? What if I read the value of this variable from the user at run time?

Make Central Points of Control

P.J. Plauger says his major concern is "The Principle of One Right Place—there should be One Right Place to look for any nontrivial piece of code, and One Right Place to make a likely maintenance change" (Plauger 1993). Control can be centralized in classes, routines, preprocessor macros, #include files—even a named constant is an example of a central point of control.

The reduced-complexity benefit is that the fewer places you have to look for something, the easier and safer it will be to change.

Consider Using Brute Force

One powerful heuristic tool is brute force. Don't underestimate it. A brute-force solution that works is better than an elegant solution that doesn't work. It can take a long time to get an elegant solution to work. In describing the history of searching algorithms, for example, Donald Knuth pointed out that even though the first description of a binary search algorithm was published in 1946, it took another 16 years for someone to publish an algorithm that correctly searched lists of all sizes (Knuth 1998). A binary search is more elegant, but a brute-force, sequential search is often sufficient.

  • When in doubt, use brute force.

  • —Butler Lampson

Draw a Diagram

Diagrams are another powerful heuristic tool. A picture is worth 1000 words—kind of. You actually want to leave out most of the 1000 words because one point of using a picture is that a picture can represent the problem at a higher level of abstraction. Sometimes you want to deal with the problem in detail, but other times you want to be able to work with more generality.

Keep Your Design Modular

Modularity's goal is to make each routine or class like a "black box": You know what goes in, and you know what comes out, but you don't know what happens inside. A black box has such a simple interface and such well-defined functionality that for any specific input you can accurately predict the corresponding output.

The concept of modularity is related to information hiding, encapsulation, and other design heuristics. But sometimes thinking about how to assemble a system from a set of black boxes provides insights that information hiding and encapsulation don't, so the concept is worth having in your back pocket.

Summary of Design Heuristics

Here's a summary of major design heuristics:

  • More alarming, the same programmer is quite capable of doing the same task himself in two or three ways, sometimes unconsciously, but quite often simply for a change, or to provide elegant variation.

  • —A. R. Brown W. A. Sampson
  • Find Real-World Objects

  • Form Consistent Abstractions

  • Encapsulate Implementation Details

  • Inherit When Possible

  • Hide Secrets (Information Hiding)

  • Identify Areas Likely to Change

  • Keep Coupling Loose

  • Look for Common Design Patterns

The following heuristics are sometimes useful too:

  • Aim for Strong Cohesion

  • Build Hierarchies

  • Formalize Class Contracts

  • Assign Responsibilities

  • Design for Test

  • Avoid Failure

  • Choose Binding Time Consciously

  • Make Central Points of Control

  • Consider Using Brute Force

  • Draw a Diagram

  • Keep Your Design Modular

Guidelines for Using Heuristics

Approaches to design in software can learn from approaches to design in other fields. One of the original books on heuristics in problem solving was G. Polya's How to Solve It (1957). Polya's generalized problem-solving approach focuses on problem solving in mathematics. Figure 5-10 is a summary of his approach, adapted from a similar summary in his book (emphases his).

Figure 5-10

Figure 5-10. G. Polya developed an approach to problem solving in mathematics that's also useful in solving problems in software design (Polya 1957)

One of the most effective guidelines is not to get stuck on a single approach. If diagramming the design in UML isn't working, write it in English. Write a short test program. Try a completely different approach. Think of a brute-force solution. Keep outlining and sketching with your pencil, and your brain will follow. If all else fails, walk away from the problem. Literally go for a walk, or think about something else before returning to the problem. If you've given it your best and are getting nowhere, putting it out of your mind for a time often produces results more quickly than sheer persistence can.

You don't have to solve the whole design problem at once. If you get stuck, remember that a point needs to be decided but recognize that you don't yet have enough information to resolve that specific issue. Why fight your way through the last 20 percent of the design when it will drop into place easily the next time through? Why make bad decisions based on limited experience with the design when you can make good decisions based on more experience with it later? Some people are uncomfortable if they don't come to closure after a design cycle, but after you have created a few designs without resolving issues prematurely, it will seem natural to leave issues unresolved until you have more information (Zahniser 1992, Beck 2000).