Architecture and design are all about making important, critical decisions early in the process. It’s extremely valuable to have a standard way of documenting systems, components, and interactions to aid in visualizing and communicating our designs.

The Unified Modelling Language (aka UML) is a modeling language consisting of an integrated set of diagrams, useful for designers and developers to specify, visualize, construct and communicate a design. UML is a notation that resulted from the unification of three competing modelling techniques1:

  1. Object Modeling Technique OMT [James Rumbaugh 1991] - was best for analysis and data-intensive information systems.
  2. Booch [Grady Booch 1994] - was excellent for design and implementation. Grady Booch had worked extensively with the Ada language, and had been a major player in the development of Object Oriented techniques for the language. Although the Booch method was strong, the notation was less popular.
  3. OOSE (Object-Oriented Software Engineering [Ivar Jacobson 1992]) - featured a model known as Use Cases.

All three designers joined Rational Software in the mid 90s, with the goal of standardizing this new method. Along with many industry partners, they drafted an intial proposal which was submitted to the Object Management Group in 1997. This led to a series of UML standards driven through this standards body, with UML 2.5 being the current version.

UML History UML History

The primary goals of UML include:

  • providing users with a common, expressive language that they can use to share models.

  • provide mechanism to extend the language if needed.

  • remain independent of any particular programming language or development process2

  • support higher-level organizational concepts like frameworks, patterns.

UML contains a large number of diagrams, intended to address the needs to a wide range of stakeholders. e.g. analysis, desigers, coders, testers, customers.

UML contains both structure and behaviour diagrams.

Structure diagrams show the structure of the system and its parts at different level of abstraction, and shows how they are related to one another. Behaviour diagrams show the changes in the system over time.

UML Diagram Types UML Diagram Types

These diagrams are intended to cover the full range of possible scenarios that we want to model. It’s common (and completely reasonable!) to only use the diagrams that you actually need. You will find, for instance, that component and class diagrams are commonly used when discussing component-level behaviour; package and deployment diagrams are used when determining how to install and execute your deliverable and so on.

Below we’ll highlight the most commonly used UML diagrams3. For more comprehensive coverage, see Visual Paradigm or Martin Fowler’s UML Distilled [Fowler 2004].


You should NOT create diagrams for every components, interaction or state in your system. That’s overkill for most projects. Instead, focus on building a high-level component diagram that shows the basic component interactions, which you can use to plan your system. Secondly, use diagrams if you have a particular component or sequence that is exceptionally complex, or important to get “right”.

Structure Diagrams

These document the static components in a system.

Class Diagram

The class diagram is a central modeling technique that runs through nearly all object-oriented methods. This diagram describes the types of objects in the system and various kinds of static relationships which exist between them.

There are three principal kinds of relationships which are important to model:

  1. Association - represent relationships between instances of types (a person works for a company, a company has a number of offices.
  2. Inheritance - the most obvious addition to ER diagrams for use in OO. It has an immediate correspondence to inheritance in OO design.
  3. Aggregation - Aggregation, a form of object composition in object-oriented design.

Class Diagram Class Diagram

Component Diagram

A component diagram depicts how components are wired together to form larger components or software systems. It illustrates the architectures of the software components and the dependencies between them. Those software components including run-time components, executable components also the source code components.

Component Diagram Component Diagram

Deployment Diagram

The Deployment Diagram helps to model the physical aspect of an Object-Oriented software system. It is a structure diagram which shows architecture of the system as deployment (distribution) of software artifacts to deployment targets. Artifacts represent concrete elements in the physical world that are the result of a development process. It models the run-time configuration in a static view and visualizes the distribution of artifacts in an application. In most cases, it involves modeling the hardware configurations together with the software components that lived on.

Deployment Diagram Deployment Diagram

Behaviour Diagrams

These document behaviours of the system over time.

Use Case Diagram

A use-case model describes a system’s functional requirements in terms of use cases. It is a model of the system’s intended functionality (use cases) and its environment (actors). Use cases enable you to relate what you need from a system to how the system delivers on those needs. The use-case model is generally used in all phases of the development cycle by all team members and is extremely popular for that reason.


Keep in mind that UML was created before UX. Use Cases are very much like User Stories, but with more detail. Think of Use Cases == User Stories, and Actors == Personas (except that they can also model non-human actors like other systems).

Use Case Diagram Use Case Diagram

Activity Diagram

Activity diagrams are graphical representations of workflows of stepwise activities and actions with support for choice, iteration and concurrency. It describes the flow of control of the target system. Activity diagrams are intended to model both computational and organizational processes (i.e. workflows).


I use these a lot when designing interactive systems, and modelling transitions between screens or areas of functionality.

Activity Diagram Activity Diagram

Interaction Overview Diagram

The Interaction Overview Diagram focuses on the overview of the flow of control of the interactions. It is a variant of the Activity Diagram where the nodes are the interactions or interaction occurrences. The Interaction Overview Diagram describes the interactions where messages and lifelines are hidden. You can link up the “real” diagrams and achieve high degree navigability between diagrams inside the Interaction Overview Diagram.


I don’t know that I’ve ever seen these used, but I’m specifically calling them out b/c you might be tempted to use them for interactive applications. I would probably choose a more straightforward activity diagram, and invest my remaining design time in prototyping and iterating with users.

Interaction Overview Diagram Interaction Overview Diagram

State Machine Diagram

A state diagram is a type of diagram used in UML to describe the behavior of systems which is based on the concept of state diagrams by David Harel. State diagrams depict the permitted states and transitions as well as the events that effect these transitions. It helps to visualize the entire lifecycle of objects and thus help to provide a better understanding of state-based systems.

State Machine Diagram State Machine Diagram

Sequence Diagram

The Sequence Diagram models the collaboration of objects based on a time sequence. It shows how the objects interact with others in a particular scenario of a use case.


When do you use a Sequence Diagram over a more simple Activity Diagram? When you have a more complex interaction between components. I’ve used these to model client-server authentication for instance, or passing data between systems (where it might need to be encrypted/decrypted at each side).

Sequence Diagram Sequence Diagram

  1. ↩︎

  2. … but not programming paradigm. UML assumes OO, and specifically includes OO-specific diagrams, though it doesn’t require them to be used. ↩︎

  3. The diagrams below are all taken from the Visual Paradigm UML site. Visual Paradigm is the name of the company, but also their main product, which is a UML modelling tool. They have a vested interest in getting the diagrams “right”. ↩︎