Use Case Table & Actors

Instructor: Geoff Miller

Geoff is a technical project manager and software developer. He has a bachelor's degree in IT and is a certified Professional Scrum Master.

Use cases are an important tool in software and system design. Learn about the key components of use cases and the important related concepts of actors and tables.

What are use cases?

A use case is a document created during software or system development that captures the actions of humans and systems to achieve a specific goal. 'Use' in this context is a noun (pronounced like 'loose' not 'lose'); a use case describes a use for which the system is being designed. Use cases are a crucial element of system design. They are one of the primary tools used for gathering requirements and capturing stakeholders' goals. While there is no standard format for use cases, there are several common approaches ranging from a few key details and a couple sentences to formalized step-by-step descriptions and visual diagrams using UML (Unified Modeling Language).

Emily is a business systems analyst working on a new system that will process students' enrollment in classes at a university. She has gathered requirements from stakeholders and is now creating use cases to document the requirements.

Use case actors

Actors in use cases are the external roles interacting with the system. In many instances, the actor is a human with a specific role (e.g. manager, administrator, customer), but an actor can also be an external system that interfaces with the system being designed (e.g. a payroll system may interface with an employee records system). There are two kinds of actors: primary actors and secondary actors. Primary actors are the ones who use the system towards a particular goal. They are usually the actor who initiates the use case, although this is not always true. Secondary actors provide assistance to the system in achieving its goals. Secondary actors are often external systems providing a service, but they can also be humans who are playing a similar role.

Emily identifies two human actors in the new student enrollment system: students who register for classes, and department administrators who add classes and approve student enrollment in classes, if approval is required. She also identifies two external systems that are actors: the database containing student data and the payment processing system that generates bills for the students based on the classes in which they have enrolled.

A simple UML use case diagram with one actor and three use cases

Use case tables

A table in the context of use cases is a text-based structured format used for capturing one or more use cases. There is no universal format for use case tables, but an organization will typically have one or more templates that can be used as a starting point. A table may be used as a container for a series of high level use cases or a template for detailed individual use cases. Tables may be supplemental to or used in lieu of detailed UML use case diagrams.

Regardless of the table's format, each use case will usually have a few key fields:

  • ID: Each use case should have a unique identifier. This can be something as simple as a number (1, 2, 3, etc.) or a more complicated scheme (e.g. ACCT-123).
  • Title: A use case's title should be brief and descriptive. For instance, 'Add Student to Course' and 'Approve Student Enrollment' are good use case titles.
  • Primary Actor: A use case should have one (and only one) primary actor.
  • Secondary Actors: Not all use cases will have secondary actors, but many will have at least one.
  • Description: Even the simplest use case table should have a sentence or two to describe each use case.

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