Code Health: Obsessed With Primitives?

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 Marc Eaddy

Programming languages provide basic types, such as integers, strings, and maps, which are useful in many contexts. For example, a string can be used to hold everything from a person's name to a web page URL. However, code that relies too heavily on basic types instead of custom abstractions can be hard to understand and maintain.

Primitive obsession is the overuse of basic ("primitive") types to represent higher-level concepts. For example, this code uses basic types to represent shapes:

vector<pair<int, int>> polygon = ...
pair<pair<int, int>, pair<int, int>> bounding_box = GetBoundingBox(polygon);
int area = (bounding_box.second.first - bounding_box.first.first) *
(bounding_box.second.second - bounding_box.first.seco
pair is not the right level of abstraction because its generically-named first and second fields are used to represent X and Y in one case and lower-left (er, upper-left?) and upper-right (er, lower-right?) in the other. Worse, basic types don't encapsulate domain-specific code such as computing the bounding box and area.

Replacing basic types with higher-level abstractions results in clearer and better encapsulated code:
Polygon polygon = ...
int area = polygon.GetBoundingBox().GetArea();
Here are some other examples of primitive obsession:
  • Related maps, lists, vectors, etc. that can be easily combined into a single collection by consolidating the values into a custom higher-level abstraction.
    map<UserId, string> id_to_name;
    map<UserId, int> id_to_age;
    map<UserId, Person> id_to_person;
  • A vector or map with magic indices/keys, e.g. string values at indices/keys 0, 1, and 2 hold name, address, and phone #, respectively. Instead, consolidate these values into a higher-level abstraction.
    person_data[kName] = "Foo";
  • A string that holds complex or structured text (e.g. a date). Instead, use a higher-level abstraction (e.g. Date) that provides self-documenting accessors (e.g. GetMonth) and guarantees correctness.
    string date = "01-02-03";
    Date date(Month::Feb, Day(1), Year(2003));
  • An integer or floating point number that stores a time value, e.g. seconds. Instead, use a structured timestamp or duration type.
    int timeout_secs = 5;
    Duration timeout = Seconds(5);
It's possible for any type—from a lowly int to a sophisticated red-black tree—to be too primitive for the job. If you see code that uses a lot of basic types that would be clearer or better encapsulated by using a higher-level abstraction, refactor it or politely remind the author to keep it classy!