Thesis proposal: How should static analysis tools explain anomalies to developers?
On April 26, 2016, I presented my thesis proposal to a committee of five members: Dr. Emerson Murphy-Hill (Chair), Dr. Jing Feng (Graduate School Representative), Dr. Shriram Krishnamurthi (External Member), Dr. James Lester, and Dr. Christopher Parnin. I received a conditional pass. A conditional pass means that a formal re-examination is not required, but that the committee expects additional revisions before approving the proposal. I suspect that there are some students who do not even realize that they have received a conditional pass, since the event does not seem to be recorded anywhere that is student-accessible. In the weeks that followed, I made several revisions to the thesis proposal document, incorporating feedback from the presentation:
- The committee reduced the scope of required experiments from five to three.
- The committee added a new requirement that I conduct a systematic literature review on static analysis notification techniques.
- I added a thesis contract to explicitly state the dissertation deliverables.
On May 11, 2016, I submitted the revised proposal to the committee. On May 20, 2016, I was notified that the committee had approved the revisions. Although some students prefer to keep their thesis proposal secret until graduation, I have made the proposal and presentation materials available so that they may help other students in structuring their own proposals:
- Thesis proposal document for: How should static analysis tools explain anomalies to developers? (PDF)
- Talk materials for thesis proposal (PDF)
Despite the advanced static analysis tools available within modern integrated development environments (IDEs) for detecting anomalies, the error messages these tools produce to describe these anomalies remain perplexing for developers to comprehend. This thesis postulates that tools can computationally expose their internal reasoning processes to generate assistive error explanations in a way that approximates how developers explain errors to other developers and to themselves. Compared with baseline error messages, these error explanations significantly enhance developers’ comprehension of the underlying static analysis anomaly. The contributions of this dissertation are: 1) a theoretical framework that formalizes explanation theory in the context of static analysis anomalies, 2) a set of experiments that evaluate the extent to which evidence supports the theoretical framework, and 3) a proof-of-concept IDE extension, called Radiance, that applies my identified explanation-based design principles and operationalizes these principles into a usable artifact. My work demonstrates that tools stand to significantly benefit if they incorporate explanation principles in their design.