The Baker’s Dozen of Use Cases

Rule 10:  The magical number seven (plus or minus two)

Psychologist George Miller, in his seminal 1956 paper "The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information", identified a limit on the capacity of human working memory. He found that adults have the capability to hold between five and nine ‘chunks’ of information at any one time. A ‘chunk’ may be a number, letter, word or some other cohesive set of data.

What has this to do with use cases? One of the primary functions of writing use cases is requirements validation – that is, are we actually building the correct system? The use case model is a technique for presenting the system requirements such that the customer can say either yes, we have a correct understanding of how the system should work; or no, we have misunderstood the system.

When presenting information to our (probably non-technical) customer it makes sense to keep the information content manageable. Try to keep the number of transactions in any one flow (that is, a sequence of use case steps between a trigger event and a conclusion) to between five and nine. This gives your customers the best chance of comprehending what you’re writing.

This means that the use case stops being a list of all the system requirements and becomes a précis of the system requirements. Each transaction may therefore equate to more than one system requirement. In practice this is not as over-simplifying as it sounds: requirements are often ‘clustered’ around elements of data and their production and manipulation – effectively what each use case transaction describes.

The skill in writing good use cases is the ability to précis requirements together to minimise the number of use case steps, without creating simplistic use cases.

The ‘seven, plus or minus two’ rule is not hard and fast; more a guideline. If your description has ten steps, this is not a problem; however, if it has thirty then there’s a chance you’ve over-complicated the step. The same is true at the other limit: three steps is fine; one step means you may have over-simplified and lost detail.


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Glennan Carnie
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About Glennan Carnie

Glennan is an embedded systems and software engineer with over 20 years experience, mostly in high-integrity systems for the defence and aerospace industry. He specialises in C++, UML, software modelling, Systems Engineering and process development.
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