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Sun, 26 Apr 2015

Writing docs helps you take the user's perspective

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This year, most of my contributions to Perl 6 have been to the documentation, or were directly inspired by writing the documentation.

Quite often when I write documentation, I start thinking things like this is a bit awkward to explain, wouldn't it be more consistent if ... or what happens when I use a negative number here? The implementation disallows it, but does it actually need to? or if I tell people to just pass this particular value most of the time, why not make it the default?.

Like most people who aspires to be a good programmer, I'm lazy. In particular, I hate doing pointless work. And documenting inconsistencies or missing default values or arbitrary restrictions definitively feels like doing work that shouldn't be necessary. So with a sigh I overcome my laziness, and try to fix stuff in the code, the tests, and sometimes the design docs so I can be more lazy in documenting the features. And of course, to make the overall experience more pleasant for the end user.

I've been skeptical of README-driven development in the past, dismissing it as part of the outdated (or at least for software not suitable) waterfall model, or as "no plan survives contact with the enemy". But now that I'm writing more docs, I see the value of writing docs early (of course with the provision that if things turn out to be impractical a documented, the docs may still be revised). Because it's very easy as a developer to lose the user's perspective, and writing docs makes it easier (at least for me) to look at the project from that perspective again.


With the philosophy part done, I'd like to bring some examples.

The missing default value

In Perl 6 land, we distinguish meta classes, which control behavior of a type, and representations, which control memory layout of objects.

Most Perl 6 objects have the representation P6opaque, which provides opaque, efficient storage for objects with attributes, properties, slots, or however you call per-object storage in your favorite language. Special representations exists for interfacing with C libraries, concurrency control and so on.

The class Metamodel::Primitives provides primitives for writing meta classes, with this method:

method create_type(Mu $how, $repr) { ... }

$how is our standard name for Meta stuff (from "Higher Order Workings", or simply from controlling how stuff works), and $repr is the name of the representation.

Somebody new to meta object stuff doesn't need to know much about representations (except when they want to very low-level stuff), so the docs for create_type could have said if you don't know what representation to use, use P6opaque. Or I could just establish P6opaque as a default:

method create_type(Mu $how, $repr = 'P6opaque') { ... }

There, less to document, and somebody new to this stuff can ignore the whole representations business for a while longer.

Arbitrary restrictions

The method rotor on the List was intended to create a list of sublists with fixed number of elements from the original list, potentially with overlap. So the old API was:

method rotor($elems = 2, $overlap = 1) { ... }

And one would use it a

.say for (1..7).rotor(3, 1);
# 1 2 3
# 3 4 5
# 5 6 7

Again I had an issue with default values: It wasn't clear to me why $elems defaulted to 2 (so I removed that default), or whe $overlap defaulted to 1. Wouldn't 0 be a more intuitive default?

But my main issue was that the implementation disallowed negative overlaps, and the design docs were silent on the issue. If you visualize how rotor works (take $elems elements from the list, then step back $overlap elements, then rinse and repeat), it's clear what negative overlaps mean: they are steps forward instead of backwards, and create gaps (that is, some list elements aren't included in the sublists).

And once you allow negative steps backwards, why not go work with steps forward in the first place, which are more intuitive to the user, and explicitly allow negative steps to create overlaps?

So that's what we did, though the end result is even more general.

The crucial question here was why disallow negative overlaps?, or recognizing that a restriction was arbitrary. And then lifting it.

Wording of error messages

Error messages are important to communicate why something went wrong.

We used to have the error message Could not find an appropriate parametric role variant for $role. A test for a good error message is: ask why?, and if the piece of code that threw the error can know the answer, the error message needs improving.

In this case: why can't the runtime environment find an appropriate variant? Because it didn't try hard enough? No. Because it's buggy? I hope not. It can't find the candidate because it's not there. So, include that answer in the error message: No appropriate parametric role variant available for $role.

(Uninformative/lazy error messages are one of my favorite topics for rants; consider the good old SIOCADDRT: No such process that route(8) sometimes emits, or python's Cannot import name X -- why not? ...)

So, write those docs. Write them at a time where you can still change semantics. Keep asking yourself what you could change so the documentation becomes shorter, sweeter, easier understandable.

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