Context Diagrams: Putting things in Context

Context Diagrams: Putting things in Context

Simple Context Diagram, application of Context Diagrams
Simple Context Diagram

Every Business Analyst should know something about Context Diagrams. I often draw an informal Context Diagram as the one of my first activities when I start a new project. Context Diagrams are good for focussing the mind and reminding you what you don’t know and need to find out.

What is a Context Diagram?

You have almost certainly seen Context Diagrams, even if you haven’t recognised them by name. A Context Diagram is a shape (usually a rectangle or circle) which represents “the system” which is the focus of our interest. This shape is surrounded by other shapes which represent things like:

  • Users of the system (or actors)
  • Other systems

The satellite shapes are joined to “the system” by lines. Sometimes the arrows on the lines have real significance, sometimes they are there for decoration.

Context Diagrams were commonly used as the top-most level in decomposition methods (such as SSADM). They are still with us in the form of the Use Case diagram in UML.

What will a Context Diagram tell us?

A Context Diagram will tell us about who uses the system we are looking at. It also tells us about the other systems it interacts with. The diagram actually tells us very little about our system!

When are Context Diagrams useful?

Context Diagrams are useful at towards the start of the project. They are good for communication and especially good for summarising who and what interacts with the system.

Although they don’t define our system at all well, they do make it clear what is outside. As a consequence, they are good for communicating “scope”. I even use them to help define scope during project initiation.

A really good use of Context Diagrams is to emphasis interfaces with other systems.

Limitations of Context Diagrams

There is something seductive about a well-drawn Context diagram. It seems to say a great deal, but actually it doesn’t say a lot.

It is wrong to try and make a Context Diagram do too much. Imagine a diagram with tries to show connections with 100 different objects. It would turn into a mess which nobody could read. As a result, the number of satellites is often edited. That makes the diagram easier to read but removes important information.

As a consequence, Context Diagrams are best used for illustration and communication, rather than definition.

Conclusion

Context Diagrams are a great way of providing overview and “putting things in context”! They are easy to produce and people understand them intuitively. They are good for communicating ideas to a non-technical audience.

To get the best from Context Diagrams you have to recognise their limitations. They are good at describing what is outside “the system” but they say very little about the system itself. They are not very good for detailed definition, and if they contain too much detail they actually become less useful!

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