Business Analysis: Pictures versus Words

Business Analysis: Pictures versus Words?

Image expressing "Pictures versus Words". An image of a pipe and the text "This is a pipe"
Pictures versus Words: This is a pipe

Business Analysts use models which are presented as pictures. Business Analysts also need to write text. This may give rise to a debate:

“Pictures versus Words – which is better?”

(In the picture I’m making a playful reference to Rene Magritte’s famous painting “The Treachery of Images”). Unfortunately, the honest answer to this question has to be “it depends”. It depends on what:

  • You trying to achieve with your model or text?
  • The business side wants and understands?
  • IT side needs and understands?
  • You comfortable with?

Inevitably the answer is going to finish up as a compromise.

The limitations of words

Words used as a bridge between Business and Information Technology
Words alone may form a weak bridge

Words are marvellous! You are reading this blog post! Informally, most projects start off with a short statement “we want to do something”. We add detail to that statement and it becomes a list of “requirements”. That is good, but as we start to describe our “pipe”, sometimes we find that “a picture (or model) really is worth a thousand words”.

In the “Pictures versus Words” debate, the strength of words is found when they are brief and used to define the details. They are less good for explaining how things relate to one-another.

Words alone may make for a weak bridge between business and IT. And beware! Lawyers have been arguing about the precise meanings of words since time immemorial!

The power of models (or pictures)

Orthographic projection sketch of a chair
Orthographic projection sketch of a chair

“Orthographic Projection” is one standard way of arranging different views of the same object. You know very quickly that the diagram describes a type of chair.

Picture models like engineering drawings are strong when they are used to provide overview and show how things relate to one another. By using different views of the same thing we can check each one against the others and detect inconsistencies at an early stage.


In summary, pictures and models are useful and so is text. Use both as appropriate. Add detail as you need it, but limit the amount of detail to what you need. Choose the models you use with care so that you can use them to validate the requirements. My advice is to apply Ward Cunningham’s comment “The simplest thing that could possibly work” to documentation and requirements.

Will losing constraints set you free?

I’ve been busy with a project, I’ve finally got round to writing this a week later than I intended…
In a recent conversation, someone pointed out that people sometimes remove “constraints” from a database in order to improve performance. This made me ask myself:
Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?
I have to admit that this is a technical change that I have considered in the past. Never-the-less, I have mixed feelings about it.
After some thought, my opinion is:
  • For many situations a constraint is redundant. The fundamental structure of many applications means they are unlikely to create orphan rows.
  • The cost of the constraint is in the extra processing it causes during update operations. This cost is incurred every time a value in the constrained column is updated.
  • The benefit of a constraint is that it absolutely protects the constrained column from rogue values. This may be particularly relevant if the system has components (such as load utilities or interfaces with other systems) which by-pass the normal business transactions.
  • Other benefits of constraints are that they unequivocally state the “intention” of a relationship between tables and they allow diagramming tools which navigate the relationships to “do their thing”. Constraints provide good documentation, which is securely integrated with the database itself.
In short:
  • The costs of constraints are small, but constant and in the immediate term.
  • The benefits of constraints are avoiding a potentially large cost, but all in the future.
It’s the old “insurance” argument. Make the decision honestly based on a proper assessment of the real risk and your attitude to taking risks. Be lucky!

More Detailed Argument

For those who don’t just want to take my word for it. Here is a more detailed argument.
Let’s take the “business data model” of a pretty normal “selling” application.
When we perform the activities “Take Order” (maybe that should be “Take ORDER”), or “Update Order”
  • we create or update the ORDER and ORDER_LINE entities, and
  • in addition we refer to PRODUCT (to get availability and Price) and presumably to the CUSTOMER entity which isn’t shown on the diagram.
When I translate this into a Logical data model, I impose an additional rule “Every ORDER must contain at least 1 ORDER_LINE”. The original business model doesn’t impose this restriction.
Remember some people do allow ORDERs with no ORDER_LINES. They usually do it as part of a “reservation” or “priority process” which we are not going to try and have here.
When the transaction which creates the ORDER and ORDER_LINE makes it’s updates, then it will have read CUSTOMER and ORDER, so it is unlikely to produce orphan records, with or without constraints.
On the other hand, by having the constraints we can document the relationships in the database (so that a diagramming tool can produce the ERD diagram (really I suppose that should be “Table Relationship Diagram”)).
I am left wondering whether it would be possible or desirable to enforce my  “Every ORDER must contain at least 1 ORDER_LINE” rule. I’ll think about that further. (Note to self: Can this be represented as a constraint which does not impose unnecessary and unintended restrictions on creating an ORDER?)
If we don’t have constraints and we have something other than our transaction which is allowed to create ORDERs and/or ORDER_LINEs (As I said, typically this would be an interface with another system or some kind of bulk load), we have no way of knowing how reliably it does it’s checking, and we might be allowing things we really do not want into our system. Constraints would reject faulty records and the errors they created (or “threw”) could be trapped by the interface.