Hasso-Plattner-Institut25 Jahre HPI
Hasso-Plattner-Institut25 Jahre HPI

Marcel Taeumel

Data-driven Tool Construction in Exploratory Programming Environments

This work presents a new design for programming environments that promote the exploration of domain-specific software artifacts and the construction of graphical tools for such program comprehension tasks. In complex software projects, tool building is essential because domain- or task-specific tools can support decision making by representing concerns concisely with low cognitive effort. In contrast, generic tools can only support anticipated scenarios, which usually align with programming language concepts or well-known project domains.

However, the creation and modification of interactive tools is expensive because the glue that connects data to graphics is hard to find, change, and test. Even if valuable data is available in a common format and even if promising visualizations could be populated, programmers have to invest many resources to make changes in the programming environment. Consequently, only ideas of predictably high value will be implemented. In the non-graphical, command-line world, the situation Looks different and inspiring: programmers can easily build their own tools as shell scripts by configuring and combining fitter programs to process data.

We propose a new perspective on graphical tools and provide a concept to build and modify such tools with a focus on high quality, low effort, and continuous adaptability. That is, (1) we propose an object-oriented, data-driven, declarative scripting language that reduces the amount of and governs the effects of glue code for view-model specifications, and (2) we propose a scalable Ul-design language that promotes short feedback loops in an interactive, graphical environment such as Morphic known from Self or Squeak/Smalltall systems.

We implemented our concept as a tool building environment, which we call VIVIDE, on top of Squeak/Smalltalk and Morphic. We replaced existing code browsing and debugging tools to iterate within our solution more quickly. In several case studies with undergraduate and graduate students, we observed that VIVIDE can be applied to many domains such as live language development, source-code versioning, modular code browsing, and multi-language debugging. Then, we designed a controlled experiment to measure the effect on the time to build tools. Several pilot runs showed that training is crucial and, presumably, takes days or weeks, which implies a need for further research.

As a result, programmers as users can directly work with tangible representations of their software artifacts in the VIVIDE environment. Tool builders can write domain-specific scripts to populate views to approach comprehension tasks from different angles. Our novel perspective on graphical tools can inspire the creation of new trade-offs in modularity for both data providers and view designers.