Sunday, April 02, 2017

DDD, A Handmaid's Tale

(No, this is not a post about the venerable and excellent GNU DDD.)

Documentation Driven Development—DDD—is a term I just made up (not really; read on). I was working on some code TDD-style ("first, write a failing test"), and also thinking about my user documentation. My usual practice is to get my tests and code into good shape, push-worthy, and then update the documentation with my improvements (one hopes). Then the thought struck me: I'm doing this wrong!

We write tests first as miniature specifications for the code. But my documentation is conveying to the public my specifications. In the world of closed-source software, this makes sense. You prepare the documentation to ship to customers (internal or external); generally holding off until the code is stable so your documentation is mostly accurate. After all, with closed source, users can't see your tests or the code: the documentation is their only view into how to use your code.

With open-source software, this picture is radically changed. Your users can see your tests and code, in fact, you generally encourage them to look, or fork! So now your tests are little visible public specifications. Why documentation then?

Personally I still like solid documentation on open source projects. True, I could just browse the tests. But that isn't the best way to start with code that is new to me. I'd like to see examples, some explanation, perhaps some architecture or high-level pictures. Hence, documentation.

So, back to DDD. If I'm pushing out my tests and code to a public repository as soon as they pass (or near enough), how is my documentation ever to keep up? How do I encourage others to clone or fork my code, and contribute? I still want new users to have good documentation for getting started; I still want my tests to ultimately define my specifications. The answer is easy: First write failing documentation.

This is not at all a new idea! See Steve Richert, Zach Supalla, and many others. An early form of this idea is Knuth's Literate Programming.

Failing documentation

What is "failing documentation"?

Firstly, just as with "failing tests", you start with documentation of how your code should behave, but which isn't actually the case. The ways to do this are the usual suspects:

  • Write examples which don't work, or possibly don't even compile
  • Write explanations which don't fit your code
  • Write step-by-step walkthroughs which can't be followed
  • Write architecture diagrams which are wrong
  • Etc, etc, etc, anything you'd put in documentation which is invalid for your current code

Then you fix it:

  1. Write failing documentation
  2. Write failing tests which correspond to the documentation
  3. Fix the code to make the tests pass, and the documentation correct

Afterwards you have:

  • Current, accurate documentation
  • Current, passing tests
  • Current, working code

Supporting ecosystems

As straight-forward as DDD is to explain, some software ecosystems make it easier to actually do than others. A standout example is Python and doctest. In doctest you write your tests directly in the API documentation as examples. This is a perfect marriage of documentation and tests.

Swagger is an interesting case. It's generally a documentation-first approach tailored for REST API specifications. But the documentation is "live documentation"—i.e., an executable web form for exploratory testing—rather than text and code examples to read. Using DDD, you would write your REST API specification first in Swagger, then write failing tests around that before fixing the code to implement. Clever people have leveraged this.

About the post title

The Handmaid's Tale is a sly reference to Chaucer's The Wife of Bath's Tale (featuring a strong protagonist balancing among bickering companions), and The Merchants's Tale sequence. Documentation has often been treated as subservient to code, an afterthought, when really it is the first thing most new users see about a system. Give it its due.

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