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Decision tables are a precise, yet compact way to model complicated logic. Decision tables, like if-then-else and switch-case statements, associate conditions with actions to perform. But, unlike the control structures found in traditional programming languages, decision tables can associate many independent conditions with several actions in an elegant way.

Structure

Decision tables are typically divided into four quadrants, as shown below.

 Conditions Condition alternatives Actions Action entries

Each condition corresponds to a variable, relation or predicate whose possible values are listed among the condition alternatives. Each action is a procedure or operation to perform, and the entries specify whether (or in what order) the action is to be performed for the set of condition alternatives the entry corresponds to. Many decision tables include in their condition alternatives the don't care symbol, a hyphen. Using don't cares can simplify decision tables, especially when a given condition has little influence on the actions to be performed. In some cases, entire conditions thought to be important initially are found to be irrelevant when none of the alternatives influence which actions are performed.

Aside from the basic four quadrant structure, decision tables vary widely in the way the condition alternatives and action entries are represented. Some decision tables use simple true/false values to represent the alternatives to a condition (akin to if-then-else), other tables may use numbered alternatives (akin to switch-case), and some tables even use fuzzy logic or probabilistic representations for condition alternatives. In a similar way, action entries can simply represent whether an action is to be performed (check the actions to perform), or in more advanced decision tables, the sequencing of actions to perform (number the actions to perform).

Example

The limited-entry decision table is the simplest to describe. The condition alternatives are simple boolean values, and the action entries are numbers, representing the order in which the actions in a given column are to be performed.

A technical support company writes a decision table to diagnose printer problems based upon symptoms described to them over the phone from their clients.

 Conditions Printer does not print Y Y Y Y N N N N A red light is flashing Y Y N N Y Y N N Printer is unrecognized Y N Y N Y N Y N Actions Check the power cable 1 Check the printer-computer cable 1 2 Ensure printer software is installed 2 3 1 1 Check/replace ink 3 1 2 1 Check for paper jam 2 1

Of course, this is just a simple example (and it does not necessarily correspond to the reality of printer troubleshooting), but even so, it is possible to see how decision tables can scale to several conditions with many possibilities.

Software engineering benefits

Decision tables make it easy to observe that all possible conditions are accounted for. In the example above, every possible combination of the three conditions is given. In decision tables, when conditions are omitted, it is obvious even at a glance that logic is missing. Compare this to traditional control structures, where it is not easy to notice gaps in program logic with a mere glance --- sometimes it is difficult to follow which conditions correspond to which actions!

Just as decision tables make it easy to audit control logic, decision tables demand that a programmer think of all possible conditions. With traditional control structures, it is easy to forget about corner cases, especially when the else statement is optional. Since logic is so important to programming, decision tables are an excellent tool for designing control logic. In one incredible anecdote, after a failed 6 man-year attempt to describe program logic for a file maintenance system using flow charts, four people solved the problem using decision tables in just four weeks. Choosing the right tool for the problem is fundamental.