TL;DR: Readme-driven development (writing README and usage examples before the code) is considered to be an effective way for designing a public interface for a new library. A tool for automating readme-driven design has been proposed, named dokaz.
When you start creating a new library (either for your own needs or for releasing to public as a gem), often the toughest thing is designing a good public interface. Classes, modules, methods, service objects, return values, exceptions and so on.
Making things natural and easy to remember, providing consistent, transparent and useful behavior, keeping both integrity and loose coupling of concepts—all of those have never been easy, but it is possibly the hardest when you just start creating something.
One of the possible approaches is following the internals. You make, for example, some new database-abstraction gem, or data processing one, or wrapper for some complicated web API, and you just start building this car with an engine and hope that seats and dashboard and doors and steering wheel will emerge somehow at some point. And even if those “seats” and “doors” would be ugly or uncomfortable, you don’t give a damn, since the engine is powerful and fast.
Shortcomings of this approach is obvious: unless your domain is truly unique (like first and the only gem for accessing some exotic database), nobody like to use your work. Or at worst nobody’ll ever understand what you did and how is it important.
More reasonable approach we are all familiar with is behavior-driven development. Before pulling right method names and class dependencies out of nowhere, you are starting to write specifications with real use-cases for (non-existent still) library’s public interface.
I’m talking here only about RSpec or MiniSpec-like approach, where you write just specs code to show the reader (and yourself) how the library code [expected to] work. I’m really assured tools like Cucumber (providing hi-level description of functionality in natural languaes) are next-to-useless in case of library interface design.
Ironically, RSpec itself uses Cucumber to specify its hi-level behavior. You can look at some of official documentation to see all of those
Thens and decide yourself whether it provides some “added value” of clean behavior documentation.
While practice of behavior-driven development proved to be useful and reliable technique, it have its own drawbacks when it comes to interface design. First, it tends to be a bit too verbose for “thinking in code”, tends to draw you into details and corner cases and fixtures too early.
Second, it fails to provide design document with intended use of the library. At times, specs and behavior-driven development are praised as the way of documenting “how it works”, but for complex library you’d rather prefer some well-written README and usage examples than diving right into specs.
And here comes README-driven development (I’ve thought out the term myselft, but of course I’m not the first—this article explains the same concepts I am trying to). The idea is simple: you just write small examples of code using your future library, and explanations in natural language, like you already have created the library and planning to release it. This way, trying to explain to invisible reader how cool it should be some day, you are likely to come with much better and cleaner interface than “pure imagination”-driven or behavior-driven design.
NB: of course, it all works only if you can write good explanation (and decide whether explanation is good). Though, I’m pretty sure you should not design complex library if you can’t explain it.
When I have been creating first version of infoboxer, there was two consecutive parts of the library:
- Wikipedia markup parser, and
- Navigation and information extraction from parsed data.
For those two parts, signs of successful development differ dramatically.
For (1), the only public interface is something like
it either parses complex text pages successfully, correctly and quickly, or not.
It was hard to program, debug and profile, but easy to expose as a public
functionality and easy to explain.
The (2) task is completely different. Navigating through complex and heterogenous data structures can be really puzzling, and one of my hugest concerns was how to make it natural and consistent.
You can estimate what I did by yourself at Infoboxer’s showcase. For me, it is still far from ideal, but concise and consistent and useful.
The secret of how it was done is exactly what I’m talking about: almost all pages of Infoboxer’s wiki were written before the final design of navigation module. It was really helpful and almost enlightening experience.
And also, there was some cool by-product of this approach I want to share.
dokaz is a tool (in early stages of its life cycle) allowing you to automate readme-driven development, as well as just test your docs with usage examples and showcases for correctness.
Dokaz uses your Markdown documentation (README, GitHub wiki, whatever) with integrated Ruby code as a loose specs for library you design.
You just run
dokaz README.md (or
dokaz path/to/any/docs) and the
tool does following:
- extracts all blocks of code surrounded by ```ruby and ```;
- runs those blocks one-by-one and checks their output.
Two main modes of Dokaz is “spec” (does it work?) and “showcase” (what it returns/outputs/raises?).
“spec” mode is useful for quick check when you refactor library or docs, and can be easily integrated into your CI system. Its outcome is like this, like other testing tools:
“spec” mode not only check if some example in your docs fails, but also can check sample output value you provide in your docs. For example, this code in README.md:
…will also fail with message like “Expected sample output not match real”.
“showcase” mode is useful for seeing by yourself what your documented examples output:
It also useful for inserting real and accurate return values into your docs (future versions of dokaz should have option for updating the docs with real output values automatically).
Dokaz is still on early stages of development, and I’d be happy with ideas and opinions of how this tool should develop further. I’m confident as for quality of idea, but still considering the good implementation. Please feel free to drop me a line at comments, or by email firstname.lastname@example.org, or issue in dokaz repository!