- Software maintenance tasks often require finding information within existing code, which is time-consuming and difficult even for professional programmers. For example, programmers may need to know what code implements certain functionality or what is the purpose of certain code. In response, researchers have developed tools to help programmers find information during programming tasks. The empirical success of these tools can be explained by Information Foraging Theory (IFT), which predicts how people will seek information by navigating through virtual patches in an information system. In the case of programming, these patches are often chunks of code (e.g., functions), with navigable links for moving among methods. IFT predicts people will perceive cues (such as words or symbols) associated with navigable links, select links that seem relevant to their information needs, and attempt to obtain the needed information by maximizing the rate of information gained relative to the cost of navigating and understanding patches. Many existing tools accelerate foraging by decreasing the cost associated with navigating from one patch to another.
IFT suggests that the visual weight of the information features in a patch can have a strong effect on a predator’s foraging choices and, consequently, on how well the predator succeeds in maximizing the rate of information gain. In an ideal situation, visual weight will efficiently lead the predator to the needed information; on the other hand, if visual weight leads the predator astray, then this could lead the predator to process more patches than necessary (increasing cost and reducing the rate of information gain). Therefore, it is anticipated that increasing the relative weight of important information features with respect to unimportant information features will aid an end-user programmer’s foraging effort. Towards this end, two prototypes were implemented: each of these uses an existing algorithm to identify the most important lines of code in a function. One prototype increases the relative weight of important information features by highlighting important lines of code; the other prototype decreases the relative weight of unimportant information features by hiding unimportant lines of code. This research's focus is end-user programmers, who have
received minimal attention in prior work.
An empirical study evaluated the effectiveness of the prototypes relative to the baseline (no information feature modification). These results indicate that increasing the relative weight of important information features by highlighting important statements had a significant effect on the amount of information foraged and the rate of information gained; on the other hand, decreasing the relative weight of unimportant information features by hiding unimportant statements had a significant effect on the rate of information gained, but not on the amount of information foraged. Neither approaches seemed to have any effect on the amount of time spent on information foraging or patch-to-patch navigation.