[BioC] An ESR essay about software design, and how it applies to Bioconductor

Vincent Carey 525-2265 stvjc at channing.harvard.edu
Fri Feb 27 22:00:00 MET 2004

> friendly", and even "adequately documented" may be completely different
> from the rest of humanity!  I immediately thought of certain BioC
> packages I've recently bashed my head over (and over and over).

the developers are fairly responsive to questions

> At the end of the essay ESR presents a checklist for telling whether
> your software suffers from problems similar to the ones he describes.
> For the benefit of any package developers/maintainers who may still be
> reading this, here's my version of that checklist as revised
> specifically for Bioconductor:
>    1. What does the package look like to a computer person who isn't a
>       statistician or a statistician who isn't a computer person? What
>       would be the most obvious thing someone unfamiliar with your
>       package would try to use it for... and if they did, would they
>       succeed after having done nothing more than read the manpage?

we've taken care to develop a "vignette" protocol in addition
to man pages so that the user may get a holistic view of a software
component's roles.  all bioc packages have vignettes.  admittedly
these are not perfect but they help to illustrate and test

>    2. Is there any dialogue in the Tcl widgets which is a dead end,
>       without giving guidance on what the choices actually do? (although
>       if you read ESR's essay you might conclude that there's no point
>       to even having widgets, since a GUI does not automatically
>       translate into user friendliness)

some widgets are extremely useful.  no essay would convince
me to eliminate them.  there is clearly scope for improvement
with some of them.  we have taken care to provide widgetbuilding
tools so that user/developers dissatisfied with the behavior
of a given widget can try to design one that is more effective.

>    3. The requirement that end-users read documentation is NOT a sign of
>       failure for a program such as R which mostly lacks a UI... but...
>           * Is every argument, method, and slot of every non-private
>             object documented in the manpage
>             *for that object* (rather than referring to some other
>             manpage which in turn refers to another manpage, ad nauseum)?

that is the intention of the documentation validation protocol
of R CMD check.  it can be subverted, and when it is, we try
to remedy it.

>           * Are the usage examples you give in the manpage simple,
>             general, and comprehensible both to statisticians who aren't
>             computer people and computer people who aren't
>             statisticians? Hint: gratuitous use of functions that aren't
>             from the package you're documenting reduces comprehensibility.

perhaps not.  perhaps you have a better example to contribute.
again the vignettes help to provide context.  there is also
a browser for vignettes called vExplorer

>           * Does the documentation rely on references to hardcopy
>             publications to explain crucial portions of the object's
>             functionality instead of using external references as
>             supplementary/background material?

perhaps.  we have limited resources for what we are doing and
sometimes a demand must be made on the user or reader to
obtain an explanatory resource.

>           * If there is a significant number of usage scenarios where
>             the default argument values will be inappropriate, is the
>             user warned?
>           * Are the manpages in sync with the current package version?

they should be, and there are mechanisms for verifying this.

>    4. Do you ever find yourself using any phrase resembling "The syntax
>       is just like it is for the S-Plus version"?


>    5. Does your project welcome and respond to usability feedback from
>       non-expert users?


>    6. Do error messages give enough information to be able to
>       distinguish between malformed input/arguments, platform
>       limitations (memory, drive space, access permissions), problems in
>       R itself, and other ("other" presumably being the real bugs)?

in many cases, yes.  in other cases, no.  provide resources
so that we can add programming effort to exceptionhandling
features and this situation will improve.

> Thank you for your patience in reading this. I don't pretend to
> understand the technical complexity of your work, nor your motivations
> for doing it. However, if you do write open source software such as
> Bioconductor packages, it would be logical to at least assume that you
> want other people to use your software. Hopefully the above
> considerations will assist in making that happen.

it is happening.

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