Technique Brief - Context Diagrams


Quick Summary
Screenshot Context diagrams are a time-tested method for using simple symbols to illustrate a system's boundaries, benefits, interactions, and data flows. Simple sketches can aid discussions of project features and scope, and detailed graphical interface specifications can improve communication and understanding with non-technical stakeholders.


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What this is

Context diagrams graphically depict a system's boundaries, the information that flows in and out of the system, and the other systems and people that will use it and benefit from it. Representing the system as a single “black box” process interacting with its environment, context diagrams provide a picture of project scope.

Context diagrams can be very simple sketches or detailed graphical interface specifications, depending on what you need for a given communication or interaction.


Why it's useful

Any system exists in order to respond and provide services to the world around it. The context model describes how the system relates to its business environment. It depicts the boundary, scope, and benefits of the system in a simple, intuitive format that non-technical stakeholders can easily understand.

Context diagrams provide several additional benefits:

  • Careful determination of system boundaries helps limit costs, decrease development time, and improve system analysis and design.
  • Clear communication of the system and its benefits to other systems and people will help you enlist appropriate stakeholders.
  • Approaching the system from the top-most level will ensure that your analysis makes sense at a high level before you invest time developing the details.
  • In some circumstances, a simple picture is a better way to rapidly gain clarity than a written specification. Context models are the simplest of all modeling diagrams and are easy to sketch.

How to use it

Read the guideline for detailed discussions of how to use a context diagram appropriately, and step-by-step instructions for developing one. Use an appropriate level of detail for the circumstances. In a quick conversation with a stakeholder, show only those details relevant to your discussion. When creating a comprehensive specification to begin your system analysis, be sure to include all the details you can think of and use a rigorous naming convention. Be sparing with additional notations; don't muddy up the concepts by adding too many objects or using fancy clip art.

About the Author

Alan Zimmerman's 35-year career has included hardware and software engineering, system analysis and business planning, project and functional management, technical writing, and training development and delivery. And, along the way, he's thrown in a little rock-and-roll disk jockey and improvisational comedy here and there. His research interests include the on-going maturation of the software engineering profession and the intersection of business and software development processes. As owner of Pragmatic Design Studio, he is using agile methods and web technologies to solve problems in traditionally under-served markets.


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