Here are some principles of IDEs that I think are worth codifying:
Navigating in an IDE is annoying. In text, sure, you may know all the fancy navigation shortcuts like C-a M-< M-f and so on, but it’s still a non-zero amount of typing. And when it’s navigating in a file system, that’s even more typing and searching.
An IDE should minimize the amount of time spent navigating. That can mean automatically importing a function while the user is typing a call-site, so that they don’t have to navigate to the top of the file to reach the imports, or it can mean using goto definition to avoid having to figure out in which file a class is defined.
Navigation can also mean moving blocks of code around, like if you need to flip an if statement, it should be doable via a code action and not just manual manipulation.
You should aim to keep your users on a linear path of typing, kinda like how modern CPU-friendly code avoids branches and jumps.
My example of importing a function while the user is typing also highlights another principle, that IDEs should allow usages to create declarations. If a variable is not defined, an IDE should not just give an error message and give up. Unless the user is very confused, there are only a few possibilities: the variable is misspelled; the variable is not defined yet and a definition needs to be added; the variable is defined later on. Each of these can and should be solved by the IDE. The name can be fixed or the definition automatically generated.
IntelliJ’s Rust plugin just added the ability to add a new enum variant if it’s not defined, but really this should be the case with anything that can be declared. An IDE should be able to add a parameter in the case of an undefined variable. It should be able to add a type variable if one isn’t in scope.
This principle is similar to the pull based semantics of modern query oriented compilers, where compilation is defined as a query about a piece of code, and the compiler pulls in additional data and definitions to satisfy that query. A user should be able to define a usage of a symbol and then declare that symbol.
A description of programming is that it’s about holding a bunch of concepts in your head at once. That’s true, but I do believe that IDEs should make it so you have to hold less in your head. A very common feature in IDEs these days is to show a function’s parameters and their types in a tooltip as you’re typing a function call. That way, you can see the correct order and types without having to memorize it.
The oldest trick in the book to avoid memorization is windowing. By having multiple windows open, you can read off of one window while typing in the other. But windowing is a very brute-force solution. For one, it takes up a lot of space. Yes, you could in theory create a 9x9 grid of windows, but that’s the next problem, each window makes it harder to read the code. You quickly lose track of where the cursor is, and the window in which you can read code becomes smaller and smaller with each window.
This principle is underused in my view. A lot of writing code is reading code, and there can certainly be ways to limit how much memorization is required in this reading. Whether that’s a small tooltip view into the function definition, or the ability to automatically open up a worktree to reference the main branch, I think there’s room for improvement here.
I was really surprised to learn that kdy1, the creator of swc, doesn’t read documentation. How could he use libraries without docs? But after some thought, I do see how that’s feasible these days. Between tools like Copilot or TabNine, and an ergonomic, rigorous compiler like rustc, you can usually figure out an API without too much trouble. I’ve definitely eschewed reading docs and used goto definition and some autocomplete to figure out libraries.
That isn’t to say I’m anywhere close to kdy1. I still depend on documentation very very frequently. And while documentation is getting nicer to navigate with tools like Docsearch and conventions like Command-K to search, it’s still not as efficient as using an IDE. If an IDE can reduce the amount of time spent reading documentation, whether that’s by integrating docs into the IDE or by adding more tools like Copilot, I could see that speeding up development workflows significantly.
Note that documentation isn’t just the official text on a library’s website, but also its GitHub issues, pull requests, StackOverflow questions, even Twitter threads. If I could spend less time trawling through various sources and more time programming, that would be fantastic.
If there’s one unsung feature of modern IDEs, I’d say it’s syntax highlighting. If you’ve ever tried to implement syntax highlighting, you may be surprised at how hard it is to get it truly good. For the longest time, syntax highlighters relied on regular expressions. This meant you could only color in broad swaths; identifiers are green, keywords are yellow, and so on. That wasn’t good enough to let users distinguish between a variable and a function, or to highlight a method that is imported versus not imported, or to give a method call a specific color. Syntax highlighting inside strings is also quite helpful, whether for interpolations or regexes. All of these are necessary pieces for good syntax highlighting. Indeed, you could argue that syntax highlighting facilitates certain language features. Without highlighting, features like regular expressions or string formatting become extremely hard to write correctly.
Of course, syntax highlighting is also about what you don’t highlight. Most modern IDEs avoid overwhelming the user with a potpourri of color, instead choosing to highlight only a few key elements.
Lack of highlighting can also function as a very effective indication that your code is incorrect. Of course, it can also simply indicate that your IDE is still processing the code and can’t highlight it yet.
Part of the goal of an IDE is to provide feedback in a manner that’s ambient and not textual. We can interpret colors faster than we can read an error message, and for most programmers, the error messages are really just keys into a dictionary of common bugs that we recall, so the actual text of the error message is not always relevant.
This is more an aspirational principle, but I’d love for IDEs to help with learning and reading. Specifically, it’d be nice for them to persist this reading and learning in a manner that’s comprehensible. Whether that’s comments that are not embedded in the code, but are more notes for a specific user, or a visual history of how the user navigated the codebase, or pull requests that also function as code walkthroughs, there are a lot of features that IDEs could add to reify and share the technical knowledge that’s hidden in programmers’ minds. After all, the real value of a programmer is arguably this knowledge of the codebase.
Alongside that, I think there’s opportunities for IDEs that are solely focused on reading code, an Integrated Reading Environment, if you will. IDEs tend to run at the limits of most computers’ performance, but if you can make the codebase immutable, then the IDEs don’t have to spend computation updating their information. What could they do instead? Perhaps laws like Linus’ law, i.e. “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”, can be pushed even further with better tooling. If more people can read the codebase, if we can get more eyeballs, then perhaps more bugs can be solved.
IDEs have truly incredible features. Take rust-analyzer’s structural search and replace. It allows you to define syntax rewriting rules in a simple manner. I’ve wanted this for a while, and yet it took me ages to learn about it. Why? Because IDEs aren’t able to teach users. The best we’ve gotten is a few popup menus on how to use a specific feature. Indeed, most programmers seem to learn IDE features from watching other programmers.
There should be a way for an IDE to ambiently watch how you write code and suggest ways to make it faster. Maybe it can snapshot your code and notice that hey, you inverted an if statement but you didn’t use the invert-if-statement code action. Next time you put a cursor on an if statement, bring up a tooltip that you can invert it with xyz shortcut.
I started out using emacs (fun fact, I’m actually a second-generation
emacs user). However, as I started to write more and more code, I
realized that the tooling of IDEs really made my life a lot easier
than it did to know how to capitalize a group of text with
C-x C-u. But I do miss the flexibility of emacs sometimes. Like how it’s
hard to create custom code actions. Or completely revamp how your IDE
thinks about text or keybindings. Oh sure, you can use plugins, but as
any former emacs user knows, emacs keybinding plugins are quite awful
because the abstraction almost always leaks. That’s because the core
of the IDE is rarely that flexible.
Now, I’m not saying we should embed a lisp interpreter inside an IDE and make all the IDE actions secretly execute lisp functions, because that’s ridiculous on multiple levels. But I’m very excited about tools like ast-grep because they offer a little bit of that customization back. I’d be interested to see other ideas like WebAssembly plugins.
That’s all I have for now. I’d love to hear about any other principles you have in mind. Feel free to reach out at email@example.com