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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Do Smart IDEs Cause Dumbening?

The other day I read an interesting blog post from Luke Palmer the other day titled IDEWTF. In the article Luke discusseshow IDEs appear to be falling behind in the state-of-the-art compared to creative tools like Photoshop, Premiere, AutoCAD, etc. Luke's main point is that as developers we should be able to create and use the best tools for our craft. IDEs should be much more advanced than they currently are. While I agree with his point in spirit, I'm not sure that making our IDEs do more is the best thing for developers.

In 2003, a study (pdf) was conducted by a psychologist named Christof van Nimwegen. In the study 2 groups of people were asked to play a logic game. The game involved transfering colours balls according to a set of rules. One group was given a piece of software that assisted them in playing the game. For example, the software would highlight moves the player could make at a given point in time. The other group was given software that was not helpful -- it would not highlight permitted moves.

In the beginning, the group that was given the helpful software was able to solve the problems faster than the group that had the non-helpful software. However as the study progressed the group that was given the non-helpful software became much more proficient. In the end, the group using the non-helpful software was able to solve the puzzles using fewer extra moves, and produced fewer dead-end states where no more moves were possible.

The two groups were brought back in 8 months later to re-run the tests and try a different, but similar, logic puzzle. The group that had initially used the non-helpful software hit the ground running, so to speak. Not only were they able to solve the puzzles faster than the group using the helpful software but they were able to adapt their knowledge to the second puzzle.

This study suggests that helpful software, or software that offloads complexity from the user onto the software, makes us reliant on it. This doesn't say that it's a zero-sum game in which by the IDEs getting smarter the developers must get dumber. Far from it. I believe that we need to strike a balance between HAL 9000 and Notepad.

If the IDEs become too smart, and coddle the developer too much the developer will learn to rely on it. Automatic correction of syntax, imports, exceptions, etc are not in and of themselves bad. They certainly improve productivity. But the developer then learns to rely on their presence, like a drug. If the developer ever tries to work with a language that doesn't have the kind of tooling their used to they will pay a huge cognitive price up front, something that might be enough to scare them away.

So where do we draw the line? Which features improve both long term and short term productivity, and which cause dependence? I think the line is right between those features that do something automatically for the developer and those that provide advice. A feature that does something for the developer effectively offloads the cognitive complexity from the developer to the software; the developer is freed from having to think about it -- at least that's how they see it. With features that simply provide advice to the developer the IDE is allowing them to be more productive without having to pay a long term price.

An IDE like Eclipse has many of types of features. The classic example of an automatic feature is "Quick Fix". When Eclipse notices that something is wrong with the code that it can fix, it allows the user to tell the IDE to fix the problem for them. Developers that are experienced without the IDE will probably understand what it's doing. They would have been able to make the correction themselves without the help of the IDE. To them, this automatic feature is simply a way of improving their productivity. For the less experienced developer however, its mode insidious. Because the user doesn't understand what the IDE is doing, or why it needs to the user becomes more dependent.

Eclipse also has a variety of features that are designed to assist the developer. Call Hierarchy, and Class Hierarchy are two great examples. The developer still needs to understand what these features are used for; the tool simply gives the user advice, quick information that helps them make a decision or explore a code base. These features still cause a sort of dependence, but since the developer understands what the tools are for, and why they need to use them the dependence is less insidious. Without these tools the developer can still do her job, but productivity might be affected. In contrast with automatic tools where the developer wouldn't be able to do his job.

So, do smarter IDEs cause dumbening? You be the judge.

Footnote: I know "dumbening" is not grammatically correct. The word comes from a Simpsons episode where Lisa worries that she's losing her intelligence and writes in her journal:

Dear log. Can it be true? Do all Simpsons go through a process of dumbening? Wait, that's not how you spell dumbening... waaait, dumbening isn't even a word!