Here are some basic principles that we’ll cover in this excerpt:
- Involve your prospective users in the process as early and as often as possible.
- Build an initial, simpler prototype and then add to it incrementally.
- Code and test in small increments—never more than a few blocks at a time.
- Design the logic for your app before beginning to code.
- Divide, layer, and conquer.
- Comment your blocks so others (and you) can understand them.
- Learn to trace blocks with pencil and paper so that you understand their mechanics.
If you follow this advice, you will save yourself time and frustration and build better software. But you probably won’t follow it every time! Some of this advice may seem counterintuitive. Your natural inclination is to think of an idea, assume you know what your users want, and then start piecing together blocks until you think you’ve finished the app. Let’s go back to the first principle and look at how to understand what your users want before you start building anything.
Design for Real People with Real Problems
In the movie Field of Dreams, the character Ray hears a voice whisper, “If you build it, [they] will come.” Ray listens to the whisper, builds a baseball field in the middle of his Iowa corn patch, and indeed, the 1919 White Sox and thousands of fans show up.
You should know right now that the whisperer’s advice does not apply to software. In fact, it’s the opposite of what you should do. The history of software is littered with great solutions for which there is no problem (“Let’s write an app that will tell people how long it takes to drive their car to the moon!”). Solving a real problem is what makes for an amazing (and hopefully, in most cases, profitable) app. And to know what the problem is, you’ve got to talk to the people who have it. This is often referred to as user-centered design, and it will help you build better apps.
If you meet some programmers, ask them what percentage of the programs they have written have actually been deployed with real users. You’ll be surprised at how low the percentage is, even for great programmers. Most software projects run into so many issues that they don’t even see the light of day.
User-centered design means thinking and talking to prospective users early and often. This should really start even before you decide what to build. Most successful software was built to solve a particular person’s pain point, and then—and only then—generalized into the next big thing.
Build a Quick Prototype and Show It to Your Prospective Users
Most prospective users won’t react too well if you ask them to read a document that specifies what the app will do and give their feedback based on that. What does work is to show them an interactive model for the app you’re going to create—a prototype. A prototype is an incomplete, unrefined version of the app. When you build it, don’t worry about details or completeness or having a beautiful graphical interface; build it so that it does just enough to illustrate the core value-add of the app. Then, show it to your prospective users, be quiet, and listen.
When you begin your first significantly sized app, your natural inclination might be to add all of the components and blocks you’ll need in one grand effort and then download the app to your phone to see if it works. Take, for instance, a quiz app. Without guidance, most beginning programmers will add blocks with a long list of the questions and answers, blocks to handle the quiz navigation, blocks to handle checking the user’s answer, and blocks for every detail of the app’s logic, all before testing to see if any of it works. In software engineering, this is called the Big Bang approach.
Just about every beginning programmer uses this approach. In my classes at USF, I will often ask a student, “How’s it going?” as he’s working on an app.
“I think I’m done,” he’ll reply.
“Splendid. Can I see it?”
“Ummm, not yet; I don’t have my phone with me.”
“So you haven’t run the app at all?” I ask.
I’ll look over his shoulder at an amazing, colorful configuration of 30 or so blocks. But he hasn’t tested a single piece of functionality.
It’s easy to get mesmerized and drawn into building your UI and creating all the behavior you need in the Blocks Editor. A beautiful arrangement of perfectly interconnected blocks becomes the programmer’s focus instead of a complete, tested app that someone else can use. It sounds like a shampoo commercial, but the best advice I can give my students—and aspiring programmers everywhere—is this:
Build your app one piece at a time, testing as you go. Soon enough, even this process will become surprisingly satisfying, because you’ll see results sooner (and have fewer big, nasty bugs) when you follow it.
Design Before Coding
There are two parts to programming: understanding the logic of the app, and then translating that logic into some form of programming language. Before you tackle the translation, spend some time on the logic. Specify what should happen both for the user and internally in the app. Nail down the logic of each event handler before moving on to translating that logic into blocks.
Entire books have been written on various program design methodologies. Some people use diagrams like flowcharts or structure charts for design, while others prefer handwritten text and sketches. Some believe that all “design” should end up directly alongside your code as annotation (comments), not in a separate document.
The key for beginning programmers is to understand that there is a logic to all programs that has nothing to do with a particular programming language. Simultaneously tackling both that logic and its translation into a language, no matter how intuitive the language, can be overwhelming. So, throughout the process, get away from the computer and think about your app, make sure you’re clear on what you want it to do, and document what you come up with in some way. Then be sure and hook that “design documentation” to your app so others can benefit from it. We’ll cover this next.
Comment Your Code
If you’ve completed a few of the tutorials in this book, you’ve probably seen the yellow boxes that appear in some block samples (see Figure 15-1). These are called comments. In App Inventor, you can add comments to any block by right-clicking it and choosing Add Comment. Comments are just annotation; they don’t affect the app’s execution at all.
Why comment then? Well, if your app is successful, it will live a long life. Even after spending only a week away from your app, you will forget what you were thinking at the time and not have a clue what some of the blocks do. For this reason, even if nobody else will ever see your blocks, you should add comments to them.
And if your app is successful, it will undoubtedly pass through many hands. People will want to understand it, customize it, extend it. As soon as you have the wonderful experience of starting a project with someone’s uncommented code, you’ll understand completely why comments are essential.
Commenting a program is not intuitive, and I’ve never met a beginning programmer who thought it was important. But I’ve also never met an experienced programmer who didn’t do it.
Divide, Layer, and Conquer
Problems become overwhelming when they’re too big. The key is to break a problem down. There are two main ways to do this. The one we’re most familiar with is to break a problem down into parts (A, B, C) and tackle each one individually. The second, less common way is to break a problem into layers from simple to complex. Add a few blocks for some simple behavior, test the software to make sure it behaves as you want, add another layer of complexity, and so on.
Understand Your Language: Tracing with Pen and Paper
When an app is in action, it is only partially visible. The end user of an app sees only its outward face—the images and data that are displayed in the user interface. The inner workings of software are hidden to the outside world, just like the internal mechanisms of the human brain (thankfully!). As an app executes, we don’t see the instructions (blocks), we don’t see the program counter that tracks which instruction is currently being executed, and we don’t see the software’s internal memory cells (its variables and properties). In the end, this is how we want it: the end user should see only what the program explicitly displays. But while you are developing and testing software, you want to see everything that is happening.
You as the programmer see the code during development, but only a static view of it. Thus, you must imagine the software in action: events occurring, the program counter moving to and executing the next block, the values in the memory cells changing, and so on.
Programming requires a shift between two different views. You begin with the static model—the code blocks—and try to envision how the program will actually behave. When you are ready, you shift to testing mode: playing the role of the end user and testing the software to see if it behaves as you expect. If it does not, you must shift back to the static view, tweak your model, and test again. Through this back and forth process, you move toward an acceptable solution.
When you begin programming, you have only a partial model of how a computer program works—the entire process seems almost magical. You begin with some simple apps: clicking a button causes a cat to meow! You then move on to more complex apps, step through some tutorials, and maybe make a few changes to customize them. The beginner partially understands the inner workings of the apps but certainly does not feel in control of the process. The beginner will often say, “it’s not working,” or “it’s not doing what it’s supposed to do.” The key is to learn how things work to the point that you think more subjectively about the program and instead say things such as, “My program is doing this,” and “My logic is causing the program to....”
One way to learn how programs work is to trace the execution of some simple app, representing on paper exactly what happens inside the device when each block is performed. Envision the user triggering some event handler and then step through and show the effect of each block: how the variables and properties in the app change, how the components in the user interface change. Like a “close reading” in a literature class, this step-by-step tracing forces you to examine the elements of the language—in this case, App Inventor blocks.
The complexity of the sample you trace is almost immaterial; the key is that you slow down your thought process and examine the cause and effect of each block. You’ll gradually begin to understand that the rules governing the whole process are not as overwhelming as you originally thought.
For example, consider these blocks, shown in Figure 15-2 and Figure 15-3.
Do you understand this code? Can you trace it and show exactly what happens in each step?
You start tracing by first drawing memory cell boxes for all pertinent variables and properties. In this case, you need boxes for the
QuestionLabel.Text, as shown in Table 15-1.
Next, think about what happens when an app begins—not from a user’s perspective, but internally within the app when it initializes. If you’ve completed some of the tutorials, you probably know this, but perhaps you haven’t thought about it in mechanical terms. When an app begins:
- All the component properties are set based on their initial values in the Component Designer.
- All variable definitions and initializations are performed.
- The blocks in the Screen.Initialize event handler are performed.
Tracing a program helps you understand these mechanics. So what should go in the boxes after the initialization phase?
As shown in Table 15-2, the 1 is in
currentQuestionIndexbecause the variable definition is executed when the app begins, and it initializes it to 1. The first question is in
QuestionLabel.Textbecause Screen.Initialize selects the first item from
QuestionListand puts it there.
|Which president implemented the "New Deal" during the Great Depression?||1|
Next, trace what happens when the user clicks the Next button. Examine each block one by one. First, the
currentQuestionIndexis incremented. At an even more detailed level, the current value of the variable (1) is added to 1, and the result (2) is placed in
currentQuestionIndex. The if statement is false because the value of
currentQuestionIndex(2) is less than the length of
QuestionList(3). So the second item is selected and put into
QuestionLabel.Text, as illustrated in Table 15-3.
|Which president granted communist China formal recognition in 1979?||2|
Trace what happens on the second click. Now
currentQuestionIndexis incremented and becomes 3. What happens with the if? Before reading ahead, examine it very closely and see if you can trace it correctly.
On the if test, the value of
currentQuestionIndex(3) is indeed greater than or equal to the length of
QuestionList. So the
currentQuestionIndexis set to 1 and the first question is placed into the label, as shown in Table 15-4.
|Which president implemented the "New Deal" during the Great Depression?||1|
Our trace has uncovered a bug: the last question in the list never appears!
It is through discoveries like this that you become a programmer, an engineer. You begin to understand the mechanics of the programming language, absorbing sentences and words in the code instead of vaguely grasping paragraphs. Yes, the programming language is complex, but each “word” has a definite and straightforward interpretation by the machine. If you understand how each block maps to some variable or property changing, you can figure out how to write or fix your app. You realize that you are in complete control.
Now if you tell your friends, “I’m learning how to let a user click a Next button to get to the next question; it’s really tough,” they’d think you were crazy. But such programming is very difficult, not because the concepts are so complex, but because you have to slow down your brain to figure out how it, or a computer, processes each and every step, including those things your brain does subconsciously.
Learn more about this topic from App Inventor.
You can create your own apps for Android phones—and it's easy to do. This extraordinary book introduces App Inventor for Android, a powerful visual tool that lets anyone build apps for Android-based devices. Learn the basics of App Inventor with step-by-step instructions for more than a dozen fun projects, such as creating location-aware apps, data storage, and apps that include decision-making logic.