Six ideas that improve your software design

“Design” is a verb, not a noun. If I want to create a good program, studying the process of getting there is much more important than the resulting software. This is why I use coding katas as a form of study. I find an interesting problem problem and then solve the same problem over and over again. In this blog post, I will focus on six principles of software design. I will illustrate each with a screencast from a kata.

One of my favorite problems is that of creating a Java EE application from scratch. I call this kata “The Java EE Spike Kata”. In order to understand the role of frameworks, I use no web frameworks in the process of creating this application. I’ve completed this particular exercise about forty times on my own and more than ten times with various pair-programming partners. The whole exercise takes me about 90 minutes, and I still learn new things.

The total time of the screencasts is around 40 minutes, so you may want to pick and choose. Each section provides a link to the starting point for the source code if you want to follow along.

Please notice: The videos are accompanied by loud, pounding music. Keep you headphones on or your volume down if you share offices with someone else. Or mute the videos if you dislike the music.

Idea 1: Build your software from the outside-in

(10 minutes, github starting point)

I start building the application by writing tests that access the application over HTTP and looks at the resulting HTML. As you might have gathered, when I start this test, there is no web application. Only when the tests require a web application to continue do I start creating it. In this example, I had created a basic sketch of the interaction between the three web pages in the application before I started coding. No further design was necessary.

This particular approach uses WebDriver and Jetty to run. The cute assertion library that you may have noticed at the end of the video is FEST-assert.

Idea 2: Specify behavior rather than implementation

(6 minutes, github starting point)

I don’t make much of a distinction between different types of tests. All good tests try to describe what the software should do at some level, rather than how the software does it. But the how at some level may be the what at another level. My first test specified the interaction between the web browser and the server. In this test, one step may be to fill in the form element of a web page. This second video shows how this form works in terms of actual HTML. But the details of what framework (if any) is used, is not visible in the test.

The second thing you’ll notice in the video is that I run the tests more frequently. And each test run is much quicker. As our tests move close to the code, the rate of feedback improves.

This particular test uses Mockito to mock out the Servlet API. The assertions use FEST-assert.

Idea 3: Increase the rate of feedback

(5 minutes, github starting point)

This video illustrates the frequency of feedback. The example test-drives creating an equals-method. This task is often not worth test-driving. The resulting method is usually simple and/or generated by your IDE. But it is a good example to of how quick the cycle between test and production code can be when you’re writing tests that are close to the problem at hand. When I pair program this part of the kata, we usually use a technique called ping-pong programming: One programmer writes a failing test (or failing assertion) and hands the keyboard to his partner, the other programmer makes the test pass and writes another failing test before passing the keyboard back. On a good run, we will switch who’s got the keyboard more often than once per minute.

Notice that I also focus on the behavior of the equals-method in this test.

Idea 4: Grow the API rather than designing it up front

(8 minutes, github starting point)

As the web application grows under my fingers, I discover the need for a Data Access Object (DAO). However, as this represents a major internal interface in my application, I use Mockito to mock the implementation until I’m done with the behavior of my servlet. When this is done, I test-drive the implementation of the DAO in a separate test class.

The video also illustrates another important lesson: The code is getting ripe for a refactoring. But it’s important to resist the urge to refactor until the tests are green. If you refactor on red tests, you have much higher chances of running down a dead-end road and you’ll have to throw away your progress, wondering what went wrong.

The example uses Mockito to mock out the DAO API.

If you want to see how I implement the DAO with Hibernate, you can see the video on

Idea 5: Grow the design rather than speculating

(3 minutes, github starting point)

The video is only a partial example of this principle. Throughout the whole application, I’ve been refactoring, gradually pulling out structure to more well-structured methods and classes. The video illustrates some of the power of IDE’s when it comes to refactoring. Using the IDE to massage your code into a better design makes evolutionary design much easier to do in practice. Make sure to learn your IDE’s most useful refactorings!

The kata may seem like a non-realistic example at this time, but I’ve actually grown a very successful architecture on my current project using much the same approach. If you want to explore where to go next, the next step needed for this application is to factor out the views into separate classes and then use either a View Template language (like Velocity) or a View Transformer (using, for example dom4j) to generate the HTML. (Let me know if you’d like to see the screencast of this as well).

Idea 6: It’s supposed to work the first time around

(5 minutes, github starting point)

In this video, I return to the first test, PersonWebTest, to finish the configuration of the application. I discover a few mistakes I made in the web test as I complete the exercise. Then I try out the code in the browser. And all the scenarios I had planned for work out of the box.

When you try out your code for the first time, it should work. When you master test-driven development, you will probably forget how you programs didn’t use to work the first time. Only when you occasionally run into an unexpected error during manual testing it becomes clear how test-driven development changes you life.

If you want to see the whole, uninterrupted 75 minute code kata, the video is available at You can also take a look at the finished source code at github.

Happy programming!

A big thanks to Trond, Thomas, Ram and Christian who helped improve this post. Thank you to Finn-Robert, Øistein, Mats, Anders, Siv, Peyman, Ivar, Øystein, Cecilia, Nicolay, and Karianne who have pair-programmed this exercise with me. I especially appreciate how Ivar and Karianne both helped influence the way the application is wired together and showed me that even after 30 iterations, I still had things to learn; and how Øistein showed me how two trained developers could complete the exercise faster with pair-programming than alone. And thank you to Nicolay who graciously brought food to our pair-programming exercise.

The videos were made with the excellent (and free!) BB FlashBack Express. The keyboard echo is courtesy of KeyPosé by Magnus Jungsbluth.

About Johannes Brodwall

Johannes is Principal Software Engineer in SopraSteria. In his spare time he likes to coach teams and developers on better coding, collaboration, planning and product understanding.
This entry was posted in Extreme Programming, Java, video. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Six ideas that improve your software design

  1. Awesome collection of kata casts!

    By the way, do you also struggle with getting Eclipse to run test with Alt+Shift+X+T the first time? I thought it was a OS X problem..

  2. Thank you. It seems like Alt+Shift+X, T not working the first time is a universal Eclipse problem.

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  4. Oddbjorn Lona says:

    Spent an entire 'day off' going through this stuff and learned a lot. both about java and Eclipse. Excellent! And not to mention the music.

    Initially I thought it was 'Man with no name', so learned something new there as wel.

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  6. Michael Bruce Allen says:

    This stuff you are talking about is exactly the type of things I want to learn. I could go to college, yes. But I would rather just purchase books and courses, since its just a hobby. Is there any good books or videos that are not just aimed to beginners who dont know a thing aboutt programming? Its the TDD and planning that I am after learning.

  7. Vbeasy says:

    Wow, thank you very much for advice. Very informative and highly useful You have included a lot of information about the software design. I have learned so many new information from here. Keep sharing more.

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