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Learning To Speak "User"

Ravenflow's new application translates English-language software requirements into UML, and finds the problems. By Esther Schindler
I spent several years working as a computer consultant, serving both small ma-n-pa businesses and big name corporations. Small and large businesses have many differences, but one major similarity is users' inability to articulate what they want a new application to do.

Even when a business owner understands the need to explain software requirements, and the business analyst is good at asking the right questions, the "what this app will do" document is likely to be faulty. Requirements change; assumptions can be incorrect; people fail to think of alternate decision paths (what happens if the application isn't approved? what's the workflow then?); errors creep in. And, since the ambiguities don't show up until the software is close to complete, the entire exercise can be very expensive. Of course, nobody wants to spend a lot of time developing requirements; they want to get started on creating the new solution. "This pain is acutely felt at large corporations," says Adam Frankl, the VP of Marketing for Ravenflow.

Although most development tools have improved in the last several years, getting faster and better at code generation, Frankl points out, project success rates have barely changed.

The company's new product, Raven Professional, is a tool to automatically generate Unified Modeling Language (UML) diagrams from plain English text, enabling companies to validate requirements before development begins. Its aim is to provide a requirements authoring and validation environment, with the same level of excellence that developers have come to expect from compilers and QA tools.

There's three stages to software requirements, each of which the company claims to address with the new application. The elicitation stage helps the development and business staff develop a text document with the requirements enumerated; this can be done in Word. In the specification phase, the software uses use case models and formal documents -- UML has become the standard here, certainly so in large corporations. Finally, the company has to validate that the requirements by having the subject matter experts try to find errors. This can be accomplished with tools the users and stakeholders understand -- notably Microsoft Word -- to ascertain, "Is this what you really want?"
RAVEN Specification Builder automatically creates requirements specification documents in templated Microsoft Word format, along with UML activity diagrams.  Because these documents can be instantly generated from the latest models in RAVEN Scenario, they are never out of date  and are in a form that can be quickly disseminated for validation and development. The RAVEN Specification Checker detects most common specification errors directly from use case text, enabling analysts to quickly locate and fix requirements errors before they are published in a specification.

So, what does all that mean? You sit down with a specification builder that performs a syntactic analysis on the phrases you type in: "The applicant e-mails the form. The hiring manager examines the form for completeness." The software builds a UML document as you go, so you see the graph developing, and it flags errors or ambiguities (to whom is the form e-mailed?). Clearly, this is something that a business development manager can do while sitting next to her user -- making the process a lot faster, and enhancing the interview process for all concerned. "People spend too much time on the Visio diagrams instead of getting the requirements right," Frankl pointed out.

Once the requirements process is complete, the results can be transferred into your choice of development environment. RAVEN Professional is integrated with Microsoft Visual Studio 2005 Team System and Microsoft Team Foundation Server; IBM Rational RequisitePro; and IBM Rational Unified Process.
The company expects to make RAVEN Professional available on April 3, 2006.  Deployment starts with a pilot program, including four licenses and product training, which begins at $10,000.

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Esther Schindler has been writing about technology professionally since 1992, and her byline has appeared in dozens of IT publications. She's optimized compilers, owned a computer store, taught corporate training classes, moderated online communities, run computer user groups, and, in her spare time, written a few books. You can reach her at [email protected]
Related Keywords:specification, project management, ravenflow, uml, rational, team system, workflow


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