Heuristic evaluation of
programming systems

Tomáš Petříček, 309 (3rd floor) | @tomaspetricek

Lectures: Monday 12:20, S7

Programming systems

What really matters?

Programming systems

What can we study?

  • Formal semantics and type safety
  • Learnability for novice programmers
  • Socio-technical context of the system
  • Principles behind the system design

What makes a language popular

None of the things
we talked about?

Popular \(\neq\) Good

The index has its flaws

Still, a reason to think!

Most loved or
most dreaded?

Enthusiastic community?
Good tooling?
Clean idea?

Need to talk about
less exact things!

Analysis of language perceptions

Survey analysis

Adoption of languages

  • Libraries matter
  • Legacy and history matter
  • Flexibility more important than correctness

Programming systems

Important but hard to study

  • Expressivity of the programming notation
  • Unifying conceptual model ("everything is ...")
  • Style of interaction with the system
  • Extensibility and flexibility of the language

Heuristic analysis

High-level rules, characteristics or principles

Developed by experts, based on reviews and experience

Useful for evaluation, classifying, analysis,
new design

Programming systems

Heuristic frameworks

  • Levels of liveness of programming systems
  • Memory models of programming languages
  • Cognitive dimensions of notation
  • Technical dimensions of programming systems

Programming systems

Liveness and memory models

From batch processing ...

Coding at the computer prohibitively expensive

Write program, punch on cards, submit & wait

A few day feedback cycle!

... to live coded music performance

Visual programming

Planning and coding of problems for an electronic computing instrument (Goldstine, von
Neumann, 1948)

Liveness levels

(Tanimoto, 1990)

Level 1
Flowchart that exists independently of a program

Level 4
Continuous processing with immediate dynamic change of behaviour

Liveness levels

Programming system heuristic

  • Single property of specific systems
  • Can be used for comparing systems
  • Imagines step beyond the state-of-the-art
  • Can be used for designing new systems

Memory models of systems

Primary representation

  • How things are represented
  • Defines what can be done
  • Defines how to think!

Six major conceptualizations

  • SQL, UNIX and tape storage
  • In reality, it's always a mix!

Language memory models

  • COBOL - Memory is a nested record (tax form)
    No need for pointers, but no sharing allowed
  • LISP - Memory is an object graph (symbol list)
    Flexible, but serialization & efficiency tricky
  • FORTRAN - Memory is a bunch of arrays (vector)
    Close to the metal, but no semantic checking

Storage memory models

  • PIPES - Magnetic tape model (I/O streams)
    Specific, but great for some problems (MapReduce)
  • MULTICS - Tree with blob leaves (file system)
    Legible, allows separation; rarely used in full
  • SQL - Memory is a set of relations (tables)
    Expressive query language, c.f. Prolog and similar

Memory models

Programming system heuristic

  • Single property of any programming system
  • Categorical rather than ordinal
  • Sheds light on what exists
  • Open to questioning, e.g., is that all there is?


Cognitive dimensions

Notations and humans

Notations in computing

  • Programming languages
  • Markup and config files
  • Rule and macro editors

User experience questions

  • Does the notation structure support activities of the user?
  • Is one notation the best?

Cognitive dimensions

Programming system heuristic

  • Comprehensible broad-brush evaluation
  • Understandable for non-specialists
  • Distinguish different user needs
  • Prompt designers to see more choices

Dimensions × Activities

Variety of dimensions
For a given activity


Generic activities
involving notations

Each has different notational needs

Activities with different needs

  • Incrementation - adding formulas to spreadsheet
  • Transcription - copying data from paper
  • Modification - changing formula in a spreadsheet
  • Exploratory design - designing software structure
  • Searching - finding uses of a function
  • Exploratory understanding - understanding code

Dimensions × Activities

Variety of dimensions
For a given activity


of the notation

Human-computer interaction analysis perspective

Example cognitive dimensions (1/2)

  • Viscosity - Resistance to change
  • Visibility - Ability to view components easily
  • Premature commitment - Need to decide too early
  • Hidden dependencies - Important links not visible
  • Role-expressiveness - Purpose of an entity is clear

Example cognitive dimensions (2/2)

  • Error-proneness - Notation invites mistakes
  • Abstraction - Types and availability of mechanisms
  • Consistency - Similar syntax has similar semantics
  • Diffuseness - Verbosity of language
  • Hard mental operations - High cognitive demand

Case study

Two ways of specifying email filters

Visual rule editor vs.
scripting language

Two ways of specifying email filters

Visual editor

Scripting language


Adding new condition

Not all additions possible

Condition format is fixed

Hard mental operations
Everything is simple & clear


Adding new condition

Edit text for any change

Possible via a script

Hard mental operations Understanding code is hard

Two ways of specifying filters

Cognitive dimensions

  • Used for evaluation
  • Consider activities & dimensions
  • Clear lists to use

What is a better notation?

  • Wrong question: different trade-offs!
  • UI is viscose, less abstract, but simpler
  • Script has abstractions, less viscose, but harder

Block based
visual languages

Contrast with text for addition (writing code)

Premature commit Diffuseness / verbosity Abstraction


CDs in the real-world!

Why read this paper

  • Example of rigorous analysis
  • Based on a user study
  • Equally possible with expert assessment

Programming systems

Technical dimensions

From languages to systems

Programming system is

Integrated and complete set of
tools sufficient for creating,
modifying, and executing programs

These will include

Notations for structuring programs
and data, facilities for running and
debugging programs, and interfaces
for performing all of these tasks.

Interesting programming systems

Research and industry

  • Low-code and no-code startups
  • Live & interactive systems
  • Interesting code editors

How do we talk about these?

  • Difficult to say what is new
  • Hard to look beyond the interface
  • Programming systems deserve a theory too!

Technical dimensions

Based on analysis of past and modern systems

Capture their key characteristics

Describe a range of possible values

Descriptive, not prescriptive

Technical dimensions catalogue

Feedback Loops
Modes of interaction
Abstraction Construction

Notational Structure
Expression Geography

Error Handling
Error Detection
Error Response

Conceptual Structure

Additive Authoring

Degrees of Automation
Learnability & Sociability

Notational uniformity


  • Variety of different notations
  • More to learn, but better problem fit
  • Perl language, Web platform


  • Small set of uniform primitives
  • Not everything fits the notation
  • Lisp and (partly) Smalltalk


Separate language level

  • Implementation vs. user level
  • Limited changeability from within
  • Java and other languages

Integrated systems design

  • Implemented & modifiable in itself
  • Often changeable at runtime
  • Smalltalk, Lisp Machines

Abstraction construction

From Concrete

  • Generalize from examples
  • Expanding range in Excel
  • Pygmalion system

From Abstract

  • Define function first
  • Most programming languages
  • Coding done without values

Technical dimensions

Programming system heuristic

  • Making sense of different systems
  • Broad strokes and high-level
  • Useful for making comparisons
  • Useful for finding gaps in design space


Heuristic analysis

Heuristic analysis of languages

Both idea generation
and evaluation

Depends on the
kind of heuristic

Categorical allows questioning

Ordinal allows for
degree comparison


Next lecture will be online!


Heuristic evaluation of programming systems

  • Memory (categorical) and liveness (ordinal)
  • Cognitive and technical dimension frameworks
  • Broad-brush map of the design space
  • Useful for evaluation and novel design ideas

References (1/2)

Live visual programming

Language adoption & Heuristics

References (2/2)

Cognitive, technical & memory models

A bit of history