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The Small Class/Large Class Question

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The Small Class/Large Class Question

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Jim Christopher on Twitter:

People criticize for making tons of small classes instead of fewer larger classes. How is well-organized code more difficult to understand?

This isn't really a question. Writing a few "large" omnibus classes is simply bad design.

There are several variations on the theme of principles of OO programming. None of them include "a few large omnibus classes with nebulous responsibilities."

Here's one set of principles: Class Responsibility Collaboration. Here's one summary of responsibility definition: "Ask yourselves what each class knows and what each class does".  Here's another: "A responsibility is anything that a class knows or does." from Class Responsibility Collaborator (CRC) Models.

This idea of responsibility defined as "Knows or Does" certainly seems to value focus over sprawling vagueness.

Here's another set of principles from Object-Oriented Design; these echo the SOLID Principles without the clever acronym.

Getting down to S: a single reason to change means that the class must be narrowly-focused. When there are a few large classes, then each large class has to be touched for more than one reason. By more than one developer.

Also, getting to O: open to extension, closed to modification requires extremely narrow focus. When this is done well, new features are added via adding subclasses and (possibly) changing an initialization to switch which Factory subclass is used.

But Why?

Why do people reject "lots of small classes"? 

Reason 1. It's hard to trivially inspect a complex solution. I've had an argument similar to the one Beefarino alludes to.  In my case, it was a manager who simply didn't schedule the time to review the design in any depth.

Reason 2. Folks unfamiliar with common design patterns often see them as "over-engineered". Indeed, I've had programmers (real live Java programmers, paid to write Java code) who claimed that the java.util data structures (specificallyMap, TreeMap and HashMap) were needless, since they could write all of that using only primitive arrays. And they did, painstakingly write shabby code that had endless loops and lookups and indexing garbage instead of simply using a Map.

Reason 3. Some folks with a strong background in simple procedural programming reject class definitions in a vague, general way. Many good programmers work out ways to do encapsulation in languages like C, Fortran or COBOL via naming conventions or other extra-linguistic tricks.

They deeply understand procedural code and try to map their ideas of functions (or subroutines) and their notions of "encapsulation via naming conventions" onto OO design.

At one customer site, I knew there would be friction because the project manager was very interested in "code conventions" and "naming conventions". This was a little upsetting at the time. But I grew to realize that some folks haven't actually seen any open source code. They don't understand that there are established international, recognized conventions for most programming languages, and examples are available on the World Wide Web. Just download a popular package and read the source.

The "naming conventions" was particularly telling. The idea that Java packages (or Python packages and modules) provide distinct namespaces was not something that this manager understood. The idea that a class defines a scope was not really making much sense to them.

Also Suspicious

Another suspicious design feature are "utility" packages. It's rare (not impossible, but rare) for a class to truly be interpackagial in scope and have no proper home. The "java.util" package, for example, is a strange amalgamation of the collection data structures, national and cultural class definitions (calendars, currency, timzones, etc.) handy pattern abstractions, plus a few algorithms (priority queue, random).

Yes, these have "utility" in that they're useful. They apply broadly to many programming problems. But so does java.lang and java.io. The use of a vague and overly inclusive term like "util" is an abdication of design responsibility to focus on what's really being offered.

These things do not belong together in a sprawling unfocused package.

Nor does disparate functionality belong in a sprawling, unfocused class.


The answer is a lot of eduction. It requires time and patience.

One of the best methods for education is code walkthroughs. This permits reviews of design patterns, and how the SOLID principles are followed (or not followed) by code under development.


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