Programming in Usability Oriented Teams – Part 1

I have to confess I started in the area of computer science, so I really was into stuff like assembler (6502/68k – hmm I’m old), C and more quirky languages such as Prolog and Lisp. However, as much as I like and often quite enjoy these various languages (for different things) when I put on my usability had I often find them somewhat arcane. For example, the fanatical devotion to brackets and semi-colons in C/C++ is something which I can understand but frankly find a bit annoying in terms of usability. While there is no doubt that C etc often offer excellent performance when compared to higher level languages there are often times when lower level languages simply are not suitable for the task. Take for example rapid GUI prototyping, a sane person would never do that in a lower level language, even manually editing Python code for wxWindows (a GUI toolikt) is frankly a pain in the …… So it is with that I thought I’d start a semi regular thread on the experiences of using higher level languages such as Python or LiveCode for daily programming tasks in a usability context. I should say first up in the spirit of openness that I used to work for the publisher of LiveCode until 2005, and as a result have a small stake in the company. However, this stake is so small that it means nothing to me if you decide to buy the product or not. Indeed if you bought me a coffee it would probably be worth several hundred times more to me than if you bought a copy of LiveCode.

Anyway to kick off this thread, I thought it would be good to do a very quick and dirty look at both platforms based on current experiences. We are using both of these tools where I work to do a number of things, firstly to develop a driving simulator (in combination with other software tools), develop supporting tools for our experiements and also to develop mobile applications. It’s important to note that when I talk about these two tools I do so with the following issues in mind:

  • We are interested primarily in user focused services, as long as they are not slow, unresponsive or crash regularly it matters not what they are written in.
  • We require a process that allow rapid prototyping of graphical user interfaces, we need to be able to move those buttons and sliders around with ease. Often we also require more than that, but for now those are the important aspects.
  • Our team consists of more than computer science graduates, for example psychologists and even a political scientist. They must be able to write their own code as it is unfair to rely on a few “computer people” to do that all the time.
  • Research teams often change quite a bit over the years, hence the code we create now has to be understandable and maintainable by others in years to come.
  • We want to leverage existing solutions where possible, in particular open source platforms.
  • We need skills that are usable across many platforms from mobile to Linux.

While the set of articles which follow would appear to be a direct comparison between both platforms, that is not the full intention. At times the comparisons are I think fair, e.g. when looking at the language syntax and available features. While other times they are not, for example one is free and consequently has a larger user base and more libraries than the other. Also Python on it’s own is really just a language, where as LiveCode is a full developer platform. Hence, what I will write about is how these tools played different roles in our work and when they were or were not useful.

 What is LiveCode?

 A video explaining LiveCode from Runrev (slightly biased I guess 🙂 )

Cost: from €99-€1,500 (depending on the type of licence)

Livecode is published the Scottish software outfit Runtime Revolution (Runrev), they even eat their own cake and publish another product called Ten Thumbs Typing Tutor which uses LiveCode. LiveCode itself is built on the Metacard programming platform which Runrev bought some years ago. It owes much of its underlying heritage to the now defunct Apple Hypercard, which was an English-like scripting language that let people back in the 80s and 90s quickly and easily create Mac sofware. However, unlike it’s grandfather LiveCode supports all major platforms such as: Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, IOS and Android. You literally build the code once and it should run on all platforms, although you will get issues with screen sizes and GUI standards especially on mobile platforms. Also the mobile development experience is lacking in some respects as you do need to buy MOBGUI as an extra in order to obtain nice native looking Android or IOS apps. Also many features on the underlying desktop platforms are not always available on the mobile platforms, for example sockets or XMLRPC. Although they will argue that sockets are available via externals under IOS. That said it remains very easy to build applications for all platforms, as you have a nice GUI editor coupled with an English-like scripting language. The language is LiveCode’s biggest asset as well as perhaps for some a weakness. It does allow you to almost think it out then type it, the downside is that it can seem a little more verbose than say Python and can take a bit of getting used to. Also, the language is object-based not object oriented. That said creating applications is very easy so you can perhaps overlook the latter. The IDE lets you drag and drop interface components around with ease and add appropriate code under the relevant interface event.

 What is Python?

A tutoral from derekbanas on Youtube about Python 3.0

Cost: Free

Python is a scripting language, that is it. Unlike LiveCode if you want to do much more than programme command line based applications you will probably need to add additional libraries to support GUI building e.g. wxPython. Although that said it does come with it’s own basic GUI toolkit.  However, Python and many of it’s libraries are totally free, that means you can almost achieve what you would like to do in LiveCode at zero or near zero cost.  The only downside is that GUI builder tools (especially the free ones) are nowhere near as friendly as under LiveCode and even the expensive ones make the rapid prototyping experience far more cumbersome than under LiveCode. You will for example still have to write some code just to develop a GUI and the editors are nowhere near as “drag and drop” as LiveCode. The other major limitation is the build process, while on LiveCode you can click and create what you want (well most of the time) under Python creating a free standing executable is a messier process although still possible.

Python syntax is closer to more standard programming languages and is fully object oriented. It is also quite readable most of the time but not quite as easily as say LiveCode. It also neatly avoids the problems of other more traditional languages by relying on the code indentation as a way to specify structure rather than semi-colons. However, if you forget to indent or do it incorrectly then error messages start appearing. In that sense Python is somewhere between LiveCode and say C.

Now comes the real pain. While it is possible to run Python (or rather variants) of it on Android and even IOS I am told that writing code for both platforms at the same time is a mess. Even my minimal experience of Python on Android (so far I have not run it under IOS) was not always pleasant. Although I did have some limited fun installing the Kivy multi-touch system on an old tablet. Right now Python in my view is little more than some fun under both platforms and nothing that could be taken too seriously by any programmer – although my view may change as these articles progress.

 Summary

If you want to build GUI centric apps quickly and easily and share them across platforms then LiveCode is probably the best option. It includes all the tools that you are likely to need. The language is also streets ahead if you are looking for a gentle introduction to programming.   If on the other hand you are looking at more back-end programming tasks which require proper object orientation and are keen to avoid the verbosity of LiveCode then Python is a true winner. Also Python has many more third party libraries that support anything from statistical analysis through to games much more easily – they are often also free!

For mobile apps, LiveCode is still better than Python but in my view has a little way to go until I’d say that its either comprehensive or feels professional. However, the one major advantage is that you use the same programming language and tools on ALL platforms. This makes it for now at least a better choice for development when GUIs are required.

Parting thought, this is literally a live or rather as we go along set of articles. As my experience of both programming platforms grows my views may also change!

About Rod McCall

Rod McCall is a researcher in the field of human-computer interaction in areas such as augmented reality, mobile gaming in-car systems and virtual environments. He has a passing interest in economics after not being entirely convinced by the rubbish presented as fact during lectures on that particular subject while at uni.
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2 Responses to Programming in Usability Oriented Teams – Part 1

  1. Dermot Doran says:

    Very interesting article for me since I recently bought a copy of LiveCode even though I do a lot of coding with Python. Please keep the articles coming!

  2. rodmc says:

    Thanks Dermot, if you have any experiences as the series progresses please feel free to share them with the community. As I said these will be an “as we go along” set of articles, so it will be real life experiences, warts and all.

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