An Empirical Study of API Usability

Abstract

Modern software development extensively involves reusing library components accessed through their Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). Usability is therefore a fundamental goal of API design, but rigorous empirical studies of API usability are still relatively uncommon. In this paper, we present the design of an API usability study which combines interview questions based on the cognitive dimensions framework, with systematic observations of programmer behavior while solving programming tasks based on ``tokens''. We also discuss the implementation of the study to assess the usability of a persistence library API (offering functionalities such as storing objects into relational databases). The study involved 25 programmers (including students, researchers, and professionals), and provided additional evidence to some critical features evidenced by related studies, such as the difficulty of finding good names for API features and of discovering relations between API types. It also discovered new issues relevant to API design, such as the impact of flexibility, and confirmed the crucial importance of accurate documentation for usability.

DOI: 10.1109/ESEM.2013.14

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