Program comprehension of domain-specific and general-purpose languages

Reviewed by Greg Wilson / 2021-09-20
Keywords: Domain-Specific Languages, Program Comprehension

Sometimes software engineering research is like studying supernovas: repeatability isn't feasible (at least, not given current technology), so you have to study the ones you can find. Other times, though, researchers can do controlled experiments and replicate the experiments of others. Kosar2018 is an example of that: in it, the authors replicate an experiment reported in Kosar2011 with several improvements to remove some threats to validity. Their conclusion: developers are signfiicantly better at tool-based program comprehension when using a DSL than when using a general-purpose language.

This is an important result, though the adjective "tool-based" does qualify it a bit. Kosar2018 required developers to use an IDE while trying to complete tasks rather than (for example) reading printouts; on the other hand, their subjects were new to the DSL being used, so if anything the results underestimate the possible performance improvement. There is still lots of room for further analysis—I'd like to see someone look at well-designed versus poorly-designed DSLs, for example, because there are certainly lots of the latter—and we can still argue about how scalable DSLs are in the absence of customized debuggers, but at this point, I think the onus is on people who argue that DSLs don't make life better to prove their case.

Kosar2018 Tomaž Kosar, Savso Gaberc, Jeffrey C. Carver, and Marjan Mernik: "Program comprehension of domain-specific and general-purpose languages: replication of a family of experiments using integrated development environments". Empirical Software Engineering, 23(5), 2018, 10.1007/s10664-017-9593-2.

Domain-specific languages (DSLs) allow developers to write code at a higher level of abstraction compared with general-purpose languages (GPLs). Developers often use DSLs to reduce the complexity of GPLs. Our previous study found that developers performed program comprehension tasks more accurately and efficiently with DSLs than with corresponding APIs in GPLs. This study replicates our previous study to validate and extend the results when developers use IDEs to perform program comprehension tasks. We performed a dependent replication of a family of experiments. We made two specific changes to the original study: (1) participants used IDEs to perform the program comprehension tasks, to address a threat to validity in the original experiment and (2) each participant performed program comprehension tasks on either DSLs or GPLs, not both as in the original experiment. The results of the replication are consistent with and expanded the results of the original study. Developers are significantly more effective and efficient in tool-based program comprehension when using a DSL than when using a corresponding API in a GPL. The results indicate that, where a DSL is available, developers will perform program comprehension better using the DSL than when using the corresponding API in a GPL.