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Using identifier prefixes results in more developer errors

April 25th, 2012 1 comment

Human speech communication has to be processed in real time using a cpu with a very low clock rate (i.e., the human brain whose neurons fire at rates between 10-100 Hz). Biological evolution has mitigated the clock rate problem by producing a brain with parallel processing capabilities and cultural evolution has chipped in by organizing the information content of languages to take account of the brains strengths and weaknesses. Words provide a good example of the way information content can be structured to be handled by a very slow processor/memory system, e.g., 85% of English words start with a strong syllable (for more details search for initial in this detailed analysis of human word processing).

Given that the start of a word plays an important role as an information retrieval key we would expect the code reading performance of software developers to be affected by whether the identifiers they see all start with the same letter sequence or all started with different letter sequences. For instance, developers would be expected to make fewer errors or work quicker when reading the visually contiguous sequence consoleStr, startStr, memoryStr and lineStr, compared to say strConsole, strStart, strMemory and strLine.

An experiment I ran at the 2011 ACCU conference provided the first empirical evidence of the letter prefix effect that I am aware of. Subjects were asked to remember a list of four assignment statements, each having the form id=constant;, perform an unrelated task for a short period of time and then recall information about the previously seen constants (e.g., their value and which variable they were assigned to).

During recall subjects saw a list of five identifiers and one of the questions asked was which identifier was not in the previously seen list? When the list of identifiers started with different letters (e.g., cat, mat, hat, pat and bat) the error rate was 2.6% and when the identifiers all started with the same letter (e.g., pin, pat, pod, peg, and pen) the error rate was 5.9% (the standard deviation was 4.5% and 6.8% respectively, but ANOVA p-value was 0.038). Having identifiers share the same initial letter appears to double the error rate.

This looks like great news; empirical evidence of software developer behavior following the predictions of a model of human human speech/reading processing. A similar experiment was run in 2006, this asked subjects to remember a list of three assignment statements and they had to select the ‘not seen’ identifier from a list of four possibilities. An analysis of the results did not find any statistically significant difference in performance for the same/different first letter manipulation.

The 2011/2006 experiments throw up lots of questions, including: does the sharing a prefix only make a difference to performance when there are four or more identifiers, how does the error rate change as the number of identifiers increases, how does the error rate change as the number of letters in the identifier change, would the effect be seen for a list of three identifiers if there was a longer period between seeing the information and having to recall it, would the effect be greater if the shared prefix contained more than one letter?

Don’t expect answers to appear quickly. Experimenting using people as subjects is a slow, labour intensive process and software developers don’t always answer the question that you think they are answering. If anybody is interested in replicating the 2011 experiment the tools needed to generate the question sheets are available for download.

For many years I have strongly recommended that developers don’t prefix a set of identifiers sharing some attribute with a common letter sequence (its great to finally have some experimental backup, however small). If it is considered important that an attribute be visible in an identifiers spelling put it at the end of the identifier.

See you all at the ACCU conference tomorrow and don’t forget to bring a pen/pencil. I have only printed 40 experiment booklets, first come first served.