Assigning variables, cognitive load

Dated as .

Something I see I have to point out during code reviews with some degree of frequency is the concept of code layout and how it affects cognitive load.

I don't remember where I learnt this originally, but it was probably a combination of articles and it was some time ago, it would thus be hard to give you a list of sources.

But here is the basic concept of it.

First let's define cognitive load, to be clear. In this case when I say cognitve load I'm referring to how many things I have to keep in mind to understand how a piece of code will be interpreted by the computer. So there is some degree of cognitive load I need to have, like which file I'm in, which function, the function arguments etc.

But, there are things a programmer can do to worsen the cognitive load, and reversely, to improve it.

In this post we'll explore just variables. The simple ways in which you can improve cognitive load by simply using less variables.

Let's start with an easy example:

const something = process(data);
return {
  something,
};

That is easily refactored to:

return {
  something: process(data),
};

Why is that better? Because there is no need for my eyes or my mind to jump around. At no point do I need to remember what something was assigned to. It's just there.

Now in that example it happens to be obvious. Let's look at another example that is more problematic.

const process = data => {
  const partOfTheData = extract(data);

  // 20 lines of code here, partOfTheData is not used..

  const someDataWeJustFetched = await fetch(...);
  const secondPartOfData = extract(someDataWeJustFetched);

  // 20 lines of code here, partOfTheData is not used..

  return {
    // other stuff ...,
    partOfTheData,
    secondPartOfTheData,
  };
};

That one may not seem so evil, but it is the same idea. It could be improved as:

const process = data => {
  // 20 lines of code here.

  const someDataWeJustFetched = await fetch(...);

  // 20 lines of code here.

  return {
    // other stuff ...,
    partOfTheData: extract(data),
    secondPartOfData: extract(someDataWeJustFetched),
  };
};

Now that assumes that somehow someDataWeJustFetched is used in those 20 lines of code or something, otherwise we can do even this:

const process = data => {
  // 40 lines of code here.

  return {
    partOfTheData: extract(data),
    secondPartOfData: extract(await fetch(...)),
  };
};

You see?

The basic concept is as follows:

  1. If you can get away with not defining a variable, consider not defining it.
  2. Use the direct value instead of a variable where possible.
  3. If you must use a variable, define them as close to their usage as possible.

Note: The following section is not really convincing with its example, so I want you to think about the point I'm making as opposed to the exact example I'm showcasing. :)

Now, somebody will be sharp enough to notice that these examples don't apply to duplication. What about deduplication? I use one variable several times?

Then the conditions change.

Now I swear I read this in an article pointing this out, but I can't find it so I'll do my best to present the argument.

Let's say you have a function which takes in an argument and returns a result from it. At some point, the input has to be squared and it's used in several spots.

const getSomeNumber = inNumber => {
  const squared = inNumber * 2;

  // <use of squared>
  // 20 lines of code.
  // <use of squared>

  return result;
};

In that case, when reading the instances where you use the squared variable, you're introducing cognitive load. Why?

For a simple matter that when I read squared I have to remember what it means, no matter how simple, I have to remember.

Perhaps you'd be better served to use inNumber * 2 several times instead. Following point number 2 above.

"But doesn't that break Don't Repeat Yourself?" I hear you say. And the answer is actually yes. But duplication in and of itself is not evil. It's stupid duplication that is. And in this case, squared is always squared. It takes the same amount of effort to search and replace squared with newValue than inNumber * 2 with newValue. But the latter is easier to read.

That's all my thoughts on that subject. Hopefully you learnt something, or at least I got you thinking.


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