How to assess a software project

Every project begins the same way, you’re presented with an idea, concept, or feature to implement. You may have some constraints or even background information. And then you have a plethora of unknowns. To make good decisions about the project, you need to reduce those unknowns as quickly as possible.

I’m going to present you with some actions to take to assess a project and make better-informed decisions on planning and design. This will follow the format of:

  1. Identify the needs of the project
  2. Work through each step of the project methodically
  3. Identify the data that needs to exist at each step

Identify the needs of the project

When you begin this step, you may only have the stakeholder needs. However, there are more needs than just theirs, and it’s your job to identify them. Consider the project and who else it may impact. Consider what they may want or expect the project to do.

It’s important to realize that you have your own biases and experiences that color your perspective on the problem. You can try to break out of that by role-playing as a different person. You could also ask others with varying experiences and knowledge what their opinion is of the project and what they’d expect it to do.

Asking others for their opinions is a great way to “think outside the box”. This is because they were never in the box to begin with. You’re literally getting thoughts that are completely unattached to the project. This can be invaluable. It can also be a bit draining if they end up having the same thought process as you.

Techniques:

  • Role-play: put yourself in another person’s shoes
  • Ask a colleague for their opinion
  • Ask a non-technical person their opinion

Real-world example

The idea for Django Cairn was to be a hub of information for Django developers. The needs to me were clear. Django developers post their content across the web in various formats, but it was a challenge for people to find that information. This is partly because consumers don’t always look at the places where information is published. By indexing the knowledge and marketing that catalog, Django Cairn could guide folks to what they want to know.

Since I was the stakeholder, I felt I had a pretty good grasp on the needs of the project. However, being someone who engages fully on the internet, I shared my idea to get the feedback of the community. There were two ideas that came back that changed the needs of the project.

  1. Eric Mathes said a curated guide of knowledge is more beneficial to new developers
  2. Jeff Triplett said existing Django articles don’t indicate what version of Django it’s for, and furthermore, it’s impossible to search for Django information on a specific version

Both of these ideas significantly changed the project from the idea of a basic index of Django knowledge. It now should annotate articles with the version of Django, as well as provide curation of articles.

Eric’s opinion makes sense when you look at his background during this time. He is the author of a book that’s often recommended to beginners. He is also working on django-simple-deploy, a project that takes an opinionated approach to helping the developer get their project on the web. Sound familiar?

Jeff’s opinion also makes sense when you consider that he’s been working as a contractor for years. Rather than working on a single project for years at a time, he’s been working on various projects with different versions. I’m willing to bet he has been bitten by reading a blog post about a feature that didn’t exist in the version of Django he was working on at the time.

By asking others for their opinions, I was able to consider the problem from multiple perspectives, allowing me to identify other needs for the project.


Work through each step of the project methodically

Warning: This is probably the most boring step in assessing a project, but embrace the grind. This can be an incredibly illuminating task when looking at a new project. 100% of project ideas hand-wave the details1. By slowing down and methodically working through the project, you force yourself to consider those details.

What do I mean by “step of the project”? Yeah, sorry about that. It was a bit generic. If the project were a website, it would mean working through each page of the site and the user flows between them. It would also mean working through the various processes that occur in the background, such as notifications. For a Command Line Interface (CLI) app, it would involve considering what every command does from start to finish.

Be warned, this step is so tedious, it’s easy to skip.

Techniques

  • List out every user flow
  • Mock up the pages/visuals for each step of the user flow
  • List out every background process
  • Identify every touched service and their constraint(s)

Real-world example

If our project idea is Django Cairn, and we’re pitching its benefits as a repository of Django knowledge and a curated collection of things to learn, then we have the following high-level requirements:

The next step is to work through each of those requirements and identify what is needed to implement them.

Fetch, parse and store various content

This step implies that we have some logic that goes through a list of feeds (we missed this above) and makes a request to the feed source to capture any new content. It then should parse that content (do we need to be worried about a content type?) and store that (we’ll need at least one model). I’ve identified some new considerations in parentheses. The other things that are missing are:

  • How does this logic get kicked off? cron, celery, etc.
  • How often do you fetch content from a feed, once per day or once per week?

You can see that there are a number of questions that need to be answered. Sometimes you’ll immediately have an answer (let’s fetch data once per day), and sometimes you’ll need to define the rest of the project before deciding (should we deal with multiple content types now or later).

If you’re curious how I approached this all the way down, you can read my post Plotting the trail for Django Cairn.

Display content

This requirement is a bit more fun. It helps to draw things out on a whiteboard or using some other crude drawing utility (don’t use a pen; it’s too fine).

Before we get to that, let’s consider what we would all need to display:

  • Show the latest content
  • Show the latest curated content
  • Link to all curated content
  • Area to submit new content URL (such as a specific blog post)
  • Area to submit a new source feed URL (such as a blog)
  • Request to be a curator (link to email address)
  • Search form

The purpose is to present the most relevant information to the user without needing any input from them. At the same time, the page should allow the user to input their opinions as easily as possible via search, submit new content, etc.

Whiteboard mockup of landing page Whiteboard mockup of the landing page

Display curated content

This is very similar to the previous feature. The difference here is that we need to provide some additional filtering options that are unique to the curated content. For example, the curated content has different facets such as “reader level”.

Since the application will be implemented in the most simple fashion first, there are no background processes or additional services related to this page.

  • Filter on reader level
  • Filter on recommended
  • Filter on tags
  • List content from newest to oldest

Whiteboard mockup of curated content page Whiteboard mockup of the curated content page

Allow searching on that content

When searching, we want to allow the user to quickly analyze the results and continue to refine their search to find what they’re looking for. Ideally, the page would highlight what facet of the search was matched, but that’s a stretch goal for the moment.

Since this is search, there is the possibility of some complexity. Approaching this with simplicity in mind, using PostgreSQL’s full-text search seems like a reasonable choice. This avoids an extra service and provides decent search capabilities.

  • Search form
    • Text field
    • Filter on Django versions
    • Filter on tags
  • Results list

Whiteboard mockup of search page Whiteboard mockup of the search page

Allow users to submit new sources and/or content

The content and source forms are being combined because they are so similar. From the user’s perspective, they want to include their own content or content they feel is relevant to the site. This should be as simple as possible, but still include enough information to determine whether the submission is legitimate or not.

When new content is submitted, a notification will need to be sent. The simplest option is to make it an email. Potentially, in the future, it could be a digest, but let’s keep it simple.

  • Content form
  • Source form

Whiteboard mockup of submit source/content page Whiteboard mockup of the submit source/content page

Allow curators to create/update reviews

This page should present content to a curator that needs a decision. A curator doesn’t have to review everything, but they do need to at least mark it as “dismissed”. This would be reserved for an article they don’t feel is appropriate to be featured.

The initial load of the page should present the most important actions to the user. The unreviewed, undismissed content is shown from oldest to newest. It should make it easy to leave a review and provide options to go edit other reviews.

This feature doesn’t appear to need any background or external services. It’s purely a CRUD operation.

  • List of content
    • Default to unreviewed, not dismissed
    • Filter on reviewed, dismissed
  • Add review
  • Update review

Whiteboard mockup of create curation review page Whiteboard mockup of create curation review page


Identify the data that needs to exist at each step

The next step is to identify what data needs to exist throughout the application. The previous step identified what actions a user may take. This step is about identifying what information the application must present to the user.

If you’ve completed the previous step, then this step isn’t so bad. You’ll already have all the mockups, and you’ll have the actions the user can take on each page. Deciding what information a user may have to complete those actions is much easier with that information on hand.

Techniques

  • Consider the purpose of the page and determine what information is needed to fulfill it
  • For each action on the page, determine what information the user may need to complete that action

Real-world example

Fetch, parse and store various content

This isn’t as much of a page as a background service. However, there are some things that we have to say about it. To successfully operate the application, we will want to know the following:

  • The sources that it fails to fetch new content from
    • The source’s URL
    • The source’s creation timestamp
    • The last time it failed
    • What was the failure cause (500, 403, 400, etc.)
  • The content that can’t be successfully parsed
    • The content’s URL
    • The source
    • The content’s creation timestamp
    • The last time it failed
    • The content that’s attempting to be parsed

Display content

The purposes of Django Cairn are:

  1. Help people find quality Django content
  2. Help content creators find an audience

The first is achieved by presenting the content to the users. The information that would help a user know if they want to click a link is an excerpt from the post, the post’s timestamp, who posted it and why it might be relevant to them.

The second is achieved by making it easy for content creators to submit their information. This isn’t something that can be accomplished by showing data.

  • Excerpt of content
  • Link to source
  • Author’s name and link
  • Content’s posted date
  • Django version(s) for the content
  • Categorical tags

Whiteboard mockup of landing page Whiteboard mockup of the landing page

Display curated content

This is the same as above, but with some extra fields:

  • Is recommended
  • Reader level
  • Curated review

Whiteboard mockup of curated content page Whiteboard mockup of the curated content page

Allow searching on that content

When searching, the data that should be presented to the user is the same as Display Content, but also what fields matched their search.

  • Search form
    • Possible Django versions
    • Possible tags
  • Search results
    • Include the display content or display curated content fields
    • Highlight what parts of the search matched the content

Whiteboard mockup of search page Whiteboard mockup of the search page

Allow users to submit new sources and/or content

The forms for submitting a piece of content and a source of content are similar. The pieces of data that would be needed are:

  • Email
  • Name
  • Link
  • Justification

Whiteboard mockup of submit source/content page Whiteboard mockup of the submit source/content page

Allow curators to create/update reviews

  • List of content
    • Include the display content or display curated content fields
    • Reviewed/unreviewed status
    • Date when submitted for review
    • Date when the review was submitted or dismissed
  • Create/Update review form
    • Include the display content or display curated content fields
    • Reader level select
    • Recommend checkbox
    • Text area for review

Whiteboard mockup of create curation review page Whiteboard mockup of create curation review page

Summary

To recap, the process I follow is:

  1. Identify the needs of the project
    • Role-play: put yourself in another person’s shoes
    • Ask a colleague for their opinion
    • Ask a non-technical person their opinion
  2. Work through each step of the project methodically
    • List out every user flow
    • Mock up the pages/visuals for each step of the user flow
    • List out every background process
    • Identify every touched service and their constraint(s)
  3. Identify the data that needs to exist at each step
    • Consider the purpose of the page and determine what information is needed to fulfill it
    • For each action on the page, determine what information the user may have to complete that action

There’s a lot to analyzing a project, even when the project seems small. I hope that this post has helped you learn something new. If it has, I’d love to hear about it! You can find me on the Fediverse, Django Discord server or reach me via email

  1. My study involved a sample size of 1, me.