programming for non-programmers

Users want to express their desires to a computer and have the computer fulfill their wishes on demand. We frequently see this desire manifested as software “requirements” for configurability or customization without the need for programming. Users view programming as a highly technical, error prone, and cumbersome chore that should be left to professional software developers.

Users would like developers to produce software that is capable of intelligently adapting its structure and behavior to the needs of the day, as the environment and the business requirements change. Users believe they should be able to inform the software of these requirements through intuitive visual techniques. Click on a tool and fill in some information. Drag and drop some icons across the screen. New computations, new algorithms, and new ways of doing business should be configurable with a few clicks by users, who know nearly nothing about how a computer executes instructions, the nature of such instructions, and how such instructions come into existence.

What users do not realize is that the act of expressing themselves through clicks and gestures to produce instructions for the computer is itself an act of programming. The complexity involved in formulating those instructions is proportional to the degree of intelligence intrinsic to the computation. The breadth of requirements that can be satisfied by those instructions is a function of how much can be expressed by the user. Narrow coverage of requirements implies an inflexible system that targets a niche problem domain. Broad coverage of requirements implies a general purpose system.

General purpose programming languages have traditionally been expressed as text. Like all languages, programming languages have a vocabulary, words formed from a character set, and a grammar, which governs how to organize those words in meaningful ways. Textual programming languages allow humans to express themselves concisely in a form that is both precise enough for a computer to comprehend and similar enough to natural language (e.g., English) to be intuitive. General purpose programming languages have naturally evolved from primitive instructions close to the machine (e.g., assembly language) to abstractions that correspond to natural language. Text is a highly efficient and flexible method of communicating ideas. An alternative technique using graphical images may be applicable for expressing ideas that can be tangibly visualized, but images are wholly inappropriate for non-visual ideas. An image may be able to convey a thousand words, but to have control over exactly what words to formulate would not be easy by using visual techniques.

We can expect that programming languages will continue to advance to become more intuitive to humans and more efficient at expressing complex instructions to machines. We can also expect that graphical techniques will continue to evolve to make programming easier to both professional programmers and users, who don’t want to program. What we must accept is the fact that instructing a machine is programming, regardless of whether it is expressed as text or using visual techniques.

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