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Software Reviews

Gregory Swanson, 2007


  1. Introduction
    1. Components
    2. Cost
  2. Overview of Review Types
    1. Fagan's Software Review
    2. Active Design Review
    3. Two-Person Review
    4. N-Fold Review
    5. Phased Review
    6. IEEE Standard 1028 For Software Reviews
    7. Informal Reviews
      1. Walkthrough
      2. Pair Programming
      3. Peer Check
      4. Pass-Around
  3. Review Process
    1. Review Task
    2. Reading Technique
    3. Planning On-going Reviews
  4. Sample Forms
    1. Technical Review Summary Report
    2. Design / Specification Grade Sheet
  5. References


Code review is one of the key components of software process. The need for reviews arises from fundamental inadequacies in the way software is made:

  • Software requirements are not always concise, and require interpretation; however, interpretation of requirements may be incorrect. Furthermore, interpretation of a particular requirement will vary between teams (e.g. Quality Assurance and Development), and between members of a team.
  • Many errors start with a misconception that becomes part of the design and is repeated in each phase of development through testing. Without a review process, the end user will catch the flaw in the end product, when fixing it is most difficult and expensive.
  • The quality of implementation of the requirements depends on the experience and ability of the programmer. However, there is a fundamental inability in team members to find some errors.

Michael Fagan recognized these problems and in 1972 introduced the software review at IBM. Since then, several review process structures have appeared in the literature. Wong provides an overview of them as well as a bibliographical reference (1996). Each review process has strengths and weaknesses (discussed below) that will determine its appropriateness in a particular organization.

Software reviews have the primary objective of finding errors before a lot of time and effort is wasted building them into the software. In addition to finding errors, software reviews have the following objectives (based on Humphrey, 1989 p. 173, and McConnell, 1993):

  • Disseminate product awareness - ensure everyone understands and knows what the product is and what they are supposed to do.
  • Begin a process - conducting a software review requires that you have some kind of process in place, because you can't do a software review unless you have some predefined criteria to guide the participants.
  • Provide data points - reviews provide data points for both the product and the review process. Data points are used to measure your review process so you can make adjustments to improve it.
  • Disseminate technical knowledge - Less experienced team members learn about standards and become familiar with the various technical documents and/or coding techniques. Experienced team members hone their skills.


Depending on the formality of the process, some of the following review components may not be needed. Based on Humphrey, 1989 (Humphrey refers to software reviews as inspections):

  • Checklists and forms - Inspections require different checklists and forms for each kind of work artifact: design, requirements, code, test cases, test data, etc. Checklists and forms cover each phase of the inspection: planning, participant preparation, the inspection, inspection summary, and reporting of results. You can tailor generic checklists or forms for these uses.
  • Format - Inspections must follow a predefined format where participants have specific roles. Participants use checklists to ensure they follow the format.
  • Roles - Inspection participants include a moderator, one to four reviewers, and one author (Humphrey refers to the author as the "producer").
  • Managers - Managers don't attend, because their presence interferes with the activity. However, results such as inspection process quality reports and timelines for error fixes are reported.
  • Preparation - Reviewers prepare for the inspection by reading the documents handed them by the moderator. These documents are the artifacts produced by the author. They follow a checklist and note questions and any problems they find.
  • Error fixes - Inspection meeting participants don't talk about how fixes should be made when errors are found; errors are noted and any further discussion about fixes is done outside of the inspection meeting.
  • Results - Inspection data is kept, and ideally there is an application designed specifically for process management which stores inspection data in a database.
  • Followup - After the inspection, the author receives a list of things to fix. Once the fixes are made, another inspection is held to ensure the fixes were made and to ensure nothing else was broken.


Several factors affect the cost of inspections.

  • As defects are found during inspections of design, fewer defects are found during inspections of code and inspection time decreases for those.
  • As design inspections reduce defects in code, rework decreases.
  • As participant's inspection skill improves, the number of defects found per hour increases.
  • As quality improves in pre-test phases, test time is reduced.

McConnell (1993) said about 15 percent of a project's cost will go to inspections when both design and code inspections are done (p. 577). When you consider that 60 to 90 percent of a product's defects can be found with inspections (ibid. p. 576), that's a bargain.

Overview of Review Types

Some authors have found it sufficient to classify reviews based mostly on formality. For example, McConnell (1993) has found the following categories:

  • Reading documents and code - The least formal, reviewers read through a code listing independently (i.e. a meeting is not held). A checklist and summary form is not used, the reviewer points out problems and discusses them or notes them on the listing. Typically a code listing is no greater than 4000 lines.
  • Walkthroughs - More formal than code and document reading, walkthroughs follow a format that is less formal than inspections. The greatest distinguishing feature between walkthroughs and inspections is the participants: in walkthroughs, reviewers are the author's peers; in inspections, reviewers are peers and non-peers. Like inspections, walkthroughs specify roles for participants and those roles are the same as roles in inspections. Walkthroughs allow less preparation time for reviewers, but do specify checklists, forms, meeting rules, and followup.
  • Inspections - The most formal of the three review types, inspections include non-peers in the process. Non-peers are other persons who have an interest in the product. Inspections allow longer preparation time, and more time between the review and followup.

There are several distinct review types that the above classification scheme glosses over. They are covered well in Wong (2006):

Fagan's Software Review

Michael Fagan had two purposes in mind: 1) improve software quality, and 2) increase software developer productivity. The review process he describes includes six main steps (Wong p. 17):

  • planning
  • overview
  • individual preparation
  • group review meeting
  • rework
  • follow-up

Some steps may not be appropriate for a particular software artifact. E. g. the overview step is less useful for a code review.

Wong found that research results do not support some review practices:

  • The "synergy effect" of a group meeting, in which the collective contribution is greater than the combination of individual results. Research shows that this synergy effect is low.
  • Group meetings are costly in terms of time, which reduces development efficiency.
  • Where groups have been larger (group meetings), participation decreases across time.

Active Design Review

Active Design Review was described by Parnas and Weiss (1985). The rationale for ADR are (from Wong, p. 20):

  1. "When reviewers are overloaded with information they are unable to find defects effectively."
  2. Reviewers are often not familiar with the objective of the design and they are often unable to understand detailed levels of the artefact."
  3. "Large group review meetings often fall short of their objectives."

ADR process has three steps (Wong, p. 20):

  1. "The author presents an overview of the design artefact"
  2. Defect detection - "the author provides an open-ended questionnaire to help reviewers find defects in the design artefact"
  3. Defect collection - a "segmented review meeting strategy allows reviewers to concentrate" on small dimensions, minimizing information overload.

ADR has two roles: author, and reviewer.

Two-Person Review

Two-Person Review (TPR) was described by Bisant and Lyle (1989). Similar to ADR in that there are two roles: author and reviewer. TPR "adopts Fagan's formal review method but removes the role of the moderator (Wong, p. 21)."

N-Fold Review

N-Fold Review was described by Martin and Tsai (1990). Martin and Tsai's premise is that multiple review teams "working in parallel sessions" will find "a large number of defects" in an artefact, whereas a single team will likely find a small number (Wong, p. 21).

Tasks are divided so that groups do not duplicate each other's efforts. Fagan's (six-step) review process is followed, with participants (three or four) filling the roles of author, moderator, and reviewer (ibid).

Wong cites research that shows low defect redundancy (where each team finds the same defect), and defect discovery of 35% for a single team vs. 78% for all teams in the study (ibid).

The success of N-Fold Review depends on 1) adequate availability of expertise, and 2) ability to meet the additional costs required by multiple review teams.

Phased Review

Phased Review (PR) was described by Knight and Myers (1993). PR adopts ideas from ADR, Fagan's Software Review, and N-Fold Review. It follows Fagan's six-step process, in a series of "mini-reviews" called "phases." A phase is a full examination of one property of the artefact, such as reusability or maintainability (Wong, p. 22)

All work (including rework) must be completed for a review phase before progressing to the next phase. PRs can be performed with either a single reviewer or multiple reviewers. In the multiple reviewer approach, reviewers examine the artefact using copies of a checklist, then meet to discuss defects (ibid).

Wong finds that PRs are not widely used in practice, perhaps because they have the drawback of higher cost over other review processes.

IEEE Standard 1028 For Software Reviews

The standard describes a systematic, seven step review process (Wong, p. 24):

  1. Introduction - describes the objective and provides an overview of the procedures.
  2. Responsibilities - defines roles and responsibilities.
  3. Inputs - describes the input requirements.
  4. Entry criteria - describes the criteria to be met before starting a review, including authorization and initiating events.
  5. Procedures - details the procedures, which include planning the review, overview of procedures, preparation, examinatjion/evaluation/recording of results, rework and followup.
  6. Exit criteria - describes the criteria to be met before the review can be considered complete.
  7. Output - describes the minimum set of deliverables to be produced.

The IEEE standard describes a process similar to Fagan's. However, Wong finds that it has three shortcomings (ibid. p. 24):

  1. It does not provide "explicit suggestions" for adopting a sustainable review approach
  2. Relationships between input, process, and output are missing, because the guidelines only conceptualize the input-output relations
  3. Reviewer's characteristics are ignored (e.g. experience).

Informal Reviews


A walkthrough is where the author describes the artefact to a group of peers and seeks comments. A walkthrough differes from a formal software review in that

  1. the process is largely unstructured
  2. it does not follow a defined procedure
  3. it does not require management reporting and does not generate measurement metrics

Walkthrough approach is appropriate "where the primary review objective is to educate others about the product" (ibid). A "structured" walkthrough process is described in detail in Yourdon (1989):

  • Formality

    Formality varies between review types as described above. There are a few other relationships between formality and the review process that are worth mentioning. Formality plays a role in determining who participates in the review, and the preparation time. Results from less-formal reviews may not be added to a process database.

    ParticipantsPeers & non-peersPeers
    Prep timeLongLittle
  • Roles

    Depending on the type of review, the number of roles will vary. Inspections require three roles performed by three different people; walkthroughs and code readings can have two (author and reviewer).

    • Author - the person who wrote the code or the design. The author might give an overview of the material, explain sections that are unclear, and help clear up misperceived errors.
    • Moderator - this person is responsible for coordinating the meeting: distributing checklists and material for review, reserving a room, and moderating the meeting. The moderator is also responsible for inspection results (entering into the process database or distributing a summary report), and ensuring the followup actions are performed.
    • Reviewer - reviewers read over design or code documents looking for defects, prior to the review meeting. During the meeting reviewers go over the material again and discuss the defects found prior to the meeting, and look for additional defects.
    • Scribe - takes notes on defects found during the meeting and who is assigned to take action. The scribe role can be combined with reviewer or author roles.
  • Preparation

    Each reviewer prepares for the review by reading over the design or code, using the specified reading technique as a guide.

  • The Review

    The moderator begins the meeting and guides the discussion. One rule that must be followed is that the product is being reviewed, not the author (Humphrey 1989, McConnell 1993, Yourdon 1989). Follow the guideline that once a defect is discovered you move on. No time is spent discussing a fix, the defect is noted and assigned.

    Someone is chosen to read through and describe the design or code. Each branch of code is explained. The scribe notes errors that are discovered using a form for this purpose. Meetings should last one to two hours.

  • Followup

    The moderator is responsible for writing a report of the meeting that lists each defect. A template is used to ensure consistent reporting. Action items and assignees are indicated.

    Rework assigned on the inspection report is checked by the moderator, who is responsible for keeping track of the timeline for repairs. The moderator asseses the review with regards to reinspection criteria and determines whether or not reinspection is needed.

  • Reinspection Criteria

    Certain results indicate problems in the process. These are used to determine when reinspection is needed.

Pair Programming

Pair programming is where "two programmers work simultaneously on the same program at a single workstation" (ibid p. 25). The result is continuous, incremental review of the working product.

Peer Check

Often presented as the least expensive approach to software review, Peer Check is where "only one person besides the author examines the software artefact" (ibid). Similar to individual software review, but has "no consistent set of practices.." Usually informal, Peer Check can be formalized. Its drawback is that it relies on the knowledge and skill of the reviewer.


Pass-around is where the author distributes copies of the artefact to reviewers for concurrent review (Wong, p. 26). Reviewers can see comments others have already written, which reveals differences in interpretation and helps minimize redundancy. There is no group meeting.

Review Process

This section describes the tasks and techniques for conducting a software review, as well as what to look for.

Review Task

This section describes the tasks and techniques for conducting a software review, as well as what to look for.

Tasks are categorized into four artefacts, the work products that are reviewed (adapted from Wong, 2006):

  1. Requirements artefact
  2. Design artefact
  3. Code artefact
  4. Testing artefact

What To Look For

The following sections describe what to look for in the artefact (adapted from Yourdon (1989) and McConnell (1993)).

  • Requirements artefact - Look for ambiguities and omissions.
  • Design artefact - Note that a design review is based on the assumption that the functional requirements are correct
    • System-level design: Issues to examine include performance, security, network communications, cost, reliability, database design, backup and recovery, etc.
    • Procedural design: the design that immediately preceeds coding, procedural designs include flowcharts, pseudocode, UML diagrams, and any other diagrams used to help write code.
  • Code artefact - Listings of code (McConnell suggests up to 1000 lines of code for a two-hour meeting). Listings should include code that has been compiled and checked with any other tools available, such as one that identifies unused variables and functions.
  • Testing artefact - E.g. test cases and test data. Test cases and test data are checked to make sure they adequately cover the functionality described in the functional specification.

Reading Technique

Wong (ibid) describes reading technique as a mechanism an individual reviewer uses to detect defects. Reading technique is "a series of procedures a reviewer can use to obtain an understanding of the artefact...providing a systematic guideline for finding defects." (3 and 4 increases reading coverage and defect detection performance.)

  1. Ad-hoc - there are no explicit instructions.
  2. Checklist-based reading (CBR) - usually no longer than one page of items in the checklist. The checklist guides reviewers by pointing out particular concerns that have been trouble spots in the past. If you are implementing reviews for the first time there is no history of trouble spots, so you can use a generic checklist to start. When you finish your first review you may notice that certain recurring problems arose, e.g. un-used variables declared in different places. These are added to the checklist, and other items that were less relevant are removed. There are several shortcomings to CBR.
  3. Stepwise abstraction - especially helpful for code documents, because the reading instructions are more structured and precise.
  4. Scenario-based reading - "provides systematic guidance for reviewers on what and how to find defects." A scenario "may contain detailed descriptive questions...or how to review an artefact." Effectiveness depends on the design and content of the scenario questions, and typically requires comprehensive training. Research indicates greater defect detection (about 35%) with this technique.

Planning On-going Reviews

With on-going inspections, you will know what is next on the agenda for review.

  • It has been from personal experience that many companies are so small that the same people will always participate in reviews. In larger companies you will have more resources to choose from. In either case, you will announce the upcomming review meeting and suggest a date and time.
  • Schedule the review meeting for a time when all participants can attend, and do not schedule participants for more than one review meeting in a day.
  • Provide materials for the review to reviewers: code listings, design documents, etc., and the checklists reviewers will use. Plan time for reviewers to prepare prior to the meeting; it will take 30 minutes to 90 minutes working alone to become familiar with the material. Humphrey (1989) cites studies of high-level languages in which application code was reviewed at 700 lines per hour, and system code at 125 lines per hour.

Sample Forms

Freedman and Weinberg (1990) describe a variety of evaluation criteria in their thorough (if dated) book. The forms are all paper, but today they would more likely be a simple spreadsheet, or even Web-based forms hooked up to a database.

Technical Review Summary Report

Adapted from Freedman and Weinberg (p. 183). This report is in a Q&A format. The report describes what was reviewed, who did the reviewing, and what was their conclusion. Fields would include:

  • Review Number (like the version number of an application)
  • Date
  • Start time and End time
  • Work unit identification: module or feature
  • Produced by: producer(s) name(s)
  • Brief description
  • Materials used in the review (ID and description)
  • Participants (their names and signatures or IDs)
  • Appraisal of the work unit:
    • Accepted:
      • as-is
      • with minor revisions
    • Not accepted (new review required):
      • major revisions
      • rebuild
      • review not completed
  • Supplementary materials produced: description or IDs
  • Issues list, related-issues list, etc.

Design / Specification Grade Sheet

Adapted from Freedman and Weinberg (p. 324). Fields could include:

  • Name of Attribute / Characteristic of attribute
  • Units measured
  • Planned (Y/N)
  • Worst acceptable case
  • % weight (W)
  • Design performance
  • Grade (0-1.00) (G)
  • G x W
  • Overall grade


Bisant, D. B., and Lyle, J. R., 1989, A Two Person Inspection Method to Improve Programming Productivity: IEEE Transactions on Software Engineering, 15 (10), 1294-1304.

Freedman, D. p., and Weinberg, G. M., 1990, Handbook of Walkthroughs, Inspections, and Technical Reviews: Evaluating Programs, Projects, and Products, 3rd Edition: Dorset House ISBN: 0-932633-19-6

Humphrey, Watts S., 1989, Managing the Software Process: Addison-Wesley, 494 pages. ISBN: 0-201-18095-2

Martin, J., and Tsai, W. T., 1992, N-fold Inspection: A Requirements Analysis Technique: Communications of ACM, 33(2), 225-232.

Knight, J. C., and Myers, A. E., 1993, An Improved Inspection Technique: Communications of ACM, 36(11), 50-69.

McConnell, Steve, 1993, Code Complete: A Practical Handbook of Software Construction: Microsoft Press, 880 pages. ISBN: 1-55615-484-4

McConnell, Steve, 1996, Rapid Development: Taming Wild Software Schedules: Microsoft Press, 660 pages. ISBN: 1-55615-900-5

Parnas, D. L., and Weiss, D. M., 1985, Active Design Reviews: Principles and Practices: Proceeding of ICSE '85, Aug. 28-30, pp. 132-136. IEEE Computer Society.

Wong, Y. K., 2006, Modern Software Review: Techniques And Technologies: IRM Press, 324 pages. ISBN: 159904014X

Yourdon, Edward, 1989, Structured Walkthroughs, fourth edition: Yourdon Press/Prentice Hall, 193 pages. ISBN: 0-13-855289-4