Code Health: Make Interfaces Hard to Misuse

This is another post in our Code Health series. A version of this post originally appeared in Google bathrooms worldwide as a Google Testing on the Toilet episode. You can download a printer-friendly version to display in your office.

By Marek Kiszkis

We all try to avoid errors in our code. But what about errors created by callers of your code? A good interface design can make it easy for callers to do the right thing, and hard for callers to do the wrong thing. Don't push the responsibility of maintaining invariants required by your class on to its callers.
Can you see the issues that can arise with this code?
class Vector {
explicit Vector(int num_slots); // Creates an empty vector with `num_slots` slots.
int RemainingSlots() const; // Returns the number of currently remaining slots.
void AddSlots(int num_slots); // Adds `num_slots` more slots to the vector.
// Adds a new element at the end of the vector. Caller must ensure that RemainingSlots()
// returns at least 1 before calling this, otherwise caller should call AddSlots().
void Insert(int value);

If the caller forgets to call AddSlots(), undefined behavior might be triggered when Insert() is called. The interface pushes complexity onto the caller, exposing the caller to implementation details.

Since maintaining the slots is not relevant to the caller-visible behaviors of the class, don't expose them in the interface; make it impossible to trigger undefined behavior by adding slots as needed in Insert().
@Test public void class Vector {
explicit Vector(int num_slots);
// Adds a new element at the end of the vector. If necessary,
// allocates new slots to ensure that there is enough storage
// for the new value.
void Insert(int value);

Contracts enforced by the compiler are usually better than contracts enforced by runtime checks, or worse, documentation-only contracts that rely on callers to do the right thing.
Here are other examples that could signal that an interface is easy to misuse:
  • Requiring callers to call an initialization function (alternative: expose factory methods that return your object fully initialized).
  • Requiring callers to perform custom cleanup (alternative: use language-specific constructs that ensure automated cleanup when your object goes out of scope).
  • Allowing code paths that create objects without required parameters (e.g. a user without an ID).
  • Allowing parameters for which only some values are valid, especially if it is possible to use a more appropriate type (e.g. prefer Duration timeout instead of int timeout_in_millis).
It is not always practical to have a foolproof interface. In certain cases, relying on static analysis or documentation is necessary since some requirements are impossible to express in an interface (e.g. that a callback function needs to be thread-safe).

Don’t enforce what you don’t need to enforce - avoid code that is too defensive. For example, extensive validation of function parameters can increase complexity and reduce performance.