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Eric Holk: How Do We Read Code?

Note: This article was originally published at PHPDeveloper on 20 December 2012.
PHPDeveloper

There's an interesting post on Eric Holk's blog talking about how we read code - a look at the results from a psychology experiment that tracked the viewer's eye movement as they scanned through code (complete with video).

The goal is to figure out some way of measuring what features in programming systems help programmers understand wht they are doing, and how this can be used to make systems that lead to higher quality software. Mike is currently running an experiment where he shows people several short Python programs and asks them to tell the output of the program. The test subject is sitting in front of an eye tracker, so afterwards Mike can see where you were looking at various times during the experiment.

The results are pretty interesting and Eric likens it to a sort of "just-in-time compilation" that the mind is doing as it reads through the code, not a straight forward read through. The timing of the read is interesting too, noting that once something is figured out, it's run through faster the following times.

One aspect he's interested in is how the approach of inexperienced programmers differs from that of experienced programmers. For example, there seems to be some evidence that following variable naming conventions helps experienced programmers understand the code much quicker, while breaking these conventions leads to a severe penalty. On the other hand, inexperienced programmers seem to take about as long regardless of how the variables are named.

This study is still going on and, if you're in the Bloomington, Indiana area and would like to lend your eyes to the cause, send an email over to Mike Hansen (more on the subject on his blog here).