Derived Information

25 December 2003

How do you represent derived information in the UML?

Consider a simple example, you have a class that represents a rectangle and you want to know its height, width, and area. How do you show that the area is derivable from the height and width?

A common way is to show the height and width as attributes and the area as an operation. People do this because that's how they would implement it; fields for the height and width, and a method to calculate the area.

UML also has a notation for derived properties, you prefix the name with a '/'. So you could use this for the area.

Both of these approaches are reasonable and different teams do different things. Some only use attributes for fields; such teams don't use derived notation, or only do it when derivable information is cached in a field. Others use derived markers when they follow the same naming standard for derived values that they do for fields, such as a getArea() operation or using properties in languages like C# or Ruby.

My preference is to think about this slightly differently. One of the key properties of an object is that they are encapsulated. If I'm the user of the rectangle class I actually should not know or care that the circumference is calculated. The implementor might store the height and circumference and calculate the width - I shouldn't be able to tell. So that would leads me to use an identical naming convention for fields and for derived information on the implementation, and to represent them all as properties on the class diagram.

Does that mean I wouldn't use the derived marker? Actually no. I'm happy to mark the circumference as derived, but it indicates that there's a constraint between the three values, it doesn't specify what is calculated and what is stored. So in a similar argument I would say that if you have three side properties for a triangle it's reasonable to mark one of them as derived.

In fact it matters less which approach you take than it does that you follow a consistent style within your team. It's also important to remember that different people do different things, so this is something you'll need to figure out when looking at a foreign diagram. (I use derivation less than I would in my books because of this inconsistency of interpretation.) It's one of the many cases where the UML is less rigorous than it would like to think it is.