A Consistent API is a Very Good Thing

1 minute read

This post was originally part of a series documenting an open source web framework I worked on. The framework is well and dead, but I’m keeping these posts for posterity.

I’ve been mucking around in the codebase, cleaning up pieces of the API that annoy me. Some bright person thought that it was a good idea to have a method that returns an Iterator to access a collection. I’ve been cleaning up all of these methods, changing them so that they return an actual collection - occasionally made unmodifiable through the Collections class.

Naturally, this has led to unit test failures. Almost all of the failures have been easy to fix, but once in a while one pops up that makes me scratch my head. Here’s an example:

public void testGetIfEmpty() {
   assertEquals(0, this.errors.get().length);
   assertEquals(0, this.errors.get(FOO).length);

In this instance, errors is a class that aggregates individual Error objects. The get(String) method returns an array of Error objects that have the specified key, while get() retrieves all Errors. Pretty simple, right? After my changes, the test fails on the assertNull() statement, which isn’t surprising.

The failing statement read assertNull(this.errors.iterator(FOO)) before I removed the iterator() method, which tells us a bit about how the API was originally coded. The iterator(String) returned null if there were no matching entries. However, as the unit test clearly shows, get(String) returns an empty array when it doesn’t find any matching Errors. Quite the difference, and potentially confusing - the developer has to remember which method may return null.

The API has now been changed to return an empty collection instead of null when no matching errors are found. Now, a user of the API simply has to call the method and loop over the result (zero times if it’s empty) without having to make null checks.

Whoever wrote this unit test obviously knew that one method returned null while the other returned an empty array for the same input, since the test passed. I only wish that person would have looked at those lines and noticed the inconsistency, instead of leaving it for me to find.