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Modeling programmer navigation: A head-to-head empirical evaluation of predictive models

TitleModeling programmer navigation: A head-to-head empirical evaluation of predictive models
Publication TypeConference Paper
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsPiorkowski, D., S. D. Fleming, C. Scaffidi, L. John, C. Bogart, B. E. John, M. M. Burnett, and R. Bellamy
Conference Name2011 IEEE Symposium on Visual Languages and Human-Centric Computing (VL/HCC)
Pagination109 - 116
Date Published09/2011
Conference LocationPittsburgh, PA
ISBN Number978-1-4577-1244-9
Keywordsdebugging, information foraging, program investigation, program navigation, software maintenance

Software developers frequently need to perform code maintenance tasks, but doing so requires time-consuming navigation through code. A variety of tools are aimed at easing this navigation by using models to identify places in the code that a developer might want to visit, and then providing shortcuts so that the developer can quickly navigate to those locations. To date, however, only a few of these models have been compared head-to-head to assess their predictive accuracy. In particular, we do not know which models are most accurate overall, which are accurate only in certain circumstances, and whether combining models could enhance accuracy. Therefore, we have conducted an empirical study to evaluate the accuracy of a broad range of models for predicting many different kinds of code navigations in sample maintenance tasks. Overall, we found that models tended to perform best if they took into account how recently a developer has viewed pieces of the code, and if models took into account the spatial proximity of methods within the code. We also found that the accuracy of single-factor models can be improved by combining factors, using a spreading-activation based approach, to produce multi-factor models. Based on these results, we offer concrete guidance about how these models could be used to provide enhanced software development tools that ease the difficulty of navigating through code.