The Whats and Hows of Programmers’ Foraging Diets: What Types of Information are Programmers Looking for?

Information seeking is one of the most important activities in human-computer interaction! One of the most influential theories in understanding, modelling, and predicting information seeking is information foraging theory. In our research, we want to understand what kinds of diets – that is, the types of information goals programmers seek while debugging. By investigating the information diets of professional programmers from an information foraging theory perspective, our work aims to help bridge the gap between results from software engineering research and Information Foraging Theory foundations as well as results from human-computer interaction research.

A pork chop taken by johnnystilletto on Flickr

Is this tasty?

A head of broccoli by Jim Mead

Is this tasty?

My co-author, David Piorkowski, is travelling soon to Paris to present our latest work: “The Whats and Hows of Programmers’ Foraging Diets”. It’s a great time to expand on this paper. Here’s the PDF Preprint!

Our Method

We had two coders examine video of nine professional programmers to identify what exactly they were looking for when trying to fix a bug in an unfamiliar open-source program. We tried to identify their overall diet by identifying if they asked questions (and received answers) belonging to one of four categories: (1) finding a place to start in code, (2) expanding on that initial starting point, (3) understanding a group of code, or (4) understanding groups of groups of code.

What is a programmer’s diet while debugging?

Overall, we found that programmers spend 50% of their debugging time foraging for information.

Surprisingly, even though all participants were pursuing the same overall goal (the bug), they sought highly diverse diets. For example, Participant 2 asked mostly about groups of groups, Participant 3 asked about finding a place to start, Participant 5 didn’t really ask about anything at all, and Participant 6 also looked for a place to start. This suggests a need for debugging tools to support “long tail” demand curves of programmer information.

How did a programmer consume these diets?

How exactly did programmers go about finding what they wanted to consume?

Again, participants used a diverse mix of strategies. Participants spent only 24% of their time following between-patch foraging strategies (such as code inspection or simply reading the package explorer straight up-and-down), but between-patch foraging (such as doing data flow or control flow) has received most of the research attention.

Surprisingly, search was not a very popular strategy, accounting for less than 15% of participants’ information foraging – and not used at all by 4 of our 9 participants—suggesting that tool support is still critical for non-search strategies in debugging!

Whats Meets Hows

Participants stubbornly pursued particular information in the face of high costs and meager returns. Some participants followed a single pattern over and over again, using the same strategy. For example, in the cases that involved a programmer looking for Type 1-initial goals, participants used code search and spatial strategies extensively but not particularly fruitfully. This emphasizes a key difference between software development and other foraging domains: the highly selective nature of programmers’ dietary needs!

Takeaways

Thus, we considered what programmers want in their diets and how they forage to fulfill each of their dietary needs. Our results suggest that the diet perspective can help reveal when programming tools help to reduce this net demand—and when they do not—during the 50% of debugging time programmers spend foraging.

References and Links

Are you going to be at CHI 2013? Where and when is David’s talk?  It’s on Thursday, May 2, at 11:00 in Room Blue… be there!

D. Piorkowski, S. D. Fleming, I. Kwan, M. Burnett, C. Scaffidi, R. Bellamy, J. Jordhal. The Whats and Hows of Programmers’ Foraging Diets, to appear in ACM Conference on Human-Computer Interaction (CHI), Paris, France, 2013. PDF Preprint

Our paper on the CHI 2013 web site

And… in case you haven’t seen it yet, the video preview!

Picture of tasty pork chop by Johnny Stilleto. Picture of tasty broccoli by Jim Mead.

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