April 19, 2024

Visible programming instruments (additionally referred to as ‘no-code’ or ‘low-code’) have been getting a number of press just lately. This, in flip, has generated a number of dialogue about whether or not visible or textual content based mostly programming (coding) is ‘finest’. As somebody who makes use of textual content programming (C++) to create a visible programming data wrangling tool (Easy Data Transform) I’ve some pores and skin on this recreation and have considered it fairly a bit.

At some degree, every thing is visible. Textual content continues to be visible (glyphs). By visible programming right here I particularly imply software program that lets you program utilizing nodes (packing containers) and vertexes (arrows), laid out on a digital canvas utilizing drag and drop. 

A well-known instance of this type of drag and drop visible programming is Yahoo Pipes:

Yahoo Pipes
Credit score: Tony Hirst

However there are many others, together with my very own Straightforward Information Rework:

Observe that I’m not speaking about Excel, Scratch or drag and drop GUI designers. Though a number of the dialogue would possibly apply to them.

By textual content programming, I imply mainstream programming languages corresponding to Python, Javascript or C++, and related instruments. Right here is the QtCreator Interactive Improvement Atmosphere (IDE) that I take advantage of to jot down C++ in, to create Straightforward Information Rework:

Some great benefits of visible programming are:

  • Intuitive. People are very visible creatures. A number of our mind is given over to visible processing and our visible processing bandwidth is excessive. Take a look at just about any whiteboard, at any firm, and there’s a good likelihood you will notice packing containers and arrows. Even in non-techie firms.
  • Faster to get began. Drag and drop instruments can will let you begin fixing issues in minutes.
  • Greater degree abstractions. Which implies you possibly can work quicker (assuming they’re the fitting abstractions).
  • Much less hidden state. The connections between nodes are proven on display screen, quite than you having to construct an inner mannequin in your individual reminiscence.
  • Much less configuration. The system elements work collectively with out modification.
  • No syntax to recollect. Which implies it’s much less arcane for individuals who aren’t skilled programmers.
  • Much less run-time errors, as a result of the system usually received’t allow you to do something invalid. You don’t have to fret about getting perform names or parameter ordering and kinds proper.
  • Speedy suggestions on each motion. No must compile and run.

Some great benefits of textual content programming are:

  • Denser illustration of knowledge.
  • Larger flexibility. Simpler to do issues like looping and recursion.
  • Higher tooling. There’s a huge ecosystem of instruments for manipulating textual content, corresponding to editors and model management techniques.
  • Much less lock-in. You possibly can usually transfer your C++ or Python code from one IDE to a different with out a lot drawback.
  • Extra alternatives for optimization. As a result of you’ve lower-level entry there may be extra scope to optimize pace and/or reminiscence as required.

The benefits and downsides of every are two sides of the identical coin. The next degree of abstraction makes issues easier, but in addition reduces the expressiveness and suppleness. The express displaying of connections could make issues clearer, however may enhance on-screen litter.

The standard complaints you hear on-line about visible programming techniques are:


It makes 95% of issues straightforward and 5% of issues unimaginable

Visible programming techniques usually are not as versatile. Nevertheless many visible programming techniques will allow you to drop down into textual content programming, when required, to implement that extra 5%.

Jokes apart, I believe this hybrid method does so much to mix the strengths of each approaches.

It doesn’t scale to complicated techniques

Managing complicated techniques has been a lot improved through the years in textual content programming, utilizing methods corresponding to hierarchy and encapsulation. However there is no such thing as a purpose these identical methods can’t even be utilized to visible programming.

It isn’t excessive sufficient efficiency

The creators of a visible programming system are making a number of design choices for you. If you’ll want to tune a system for top efficiency on a selected drawback, then you definately most likely want the low degree management that textual content based mostly programming permits. However with most issues you most likely don’t care if it takes a number of additional seconds to run, if you are able to do the programming in a fraction of the time. Additionally, a number of visible programming techniques are fairly quick. Straightforward Information Rework can be part of 2 a million row datasets on a laptop computer in ~5 seconds, which is faster than base R.

It finally ends up as spaghetti

Labview spaghetti from DailyWTF
Unreal Blueprint spaghetti from reddit.com/r/ProgrammerHumor/

I’m certain we’ve all seen examples of spaghetti diagrams. However you may as well create horrible spaghetti code with textual content programming. Additionally, with the ability to instantly see {that a} visible program has been sloppily constructed would possibly function a helpful cue.

If you’re cautious to format your nodes, you possibly can maintain issues manageable (ravioli, quite than spaghetti). However it begins to grow to be difficult when you’ve 50+ nodes with a average to excessive diploma of connectivity, particularly if there is no such thing as a help for hierarchy (nodes inside nodes).

Automated format of graphs for simpler comprehension (e.g. to attenuate line crossings) is tough (NP-complete, in the identical class of issues because the ‘travelling salesman’).

No help for versioning

It’s doable to model visible programming instruments in the event that they retailer the knowledge in a textual content based mostly file (e.g XML). Attempting to diff uncooked XML isn’t supreme, however some visible based mostly programming instruments do have built-in diff and merge instruments.

It isn’t searchable

There isn’t a purpose why visible programming instruments shouldn’t be searchable.

An excessive amount of mousing

Skilled programmers love their keyboard shortcuts. However there is no such thing as a purpose why visible programming instruments can’t additionally make good use of keyboard shortcuts.

Vendor lock-in

Many visible programming instruments are proprietary, which implies the associated fee may be excessive for switching from one to a different. So, if you will make investments time and/or cash closely in a visible programming instrument, take time to make a good selection and contemplate how you possibly can transfer away from it if you’ll want to. If you’re doing fast and soiled one-offs to resolve a selected drawback that you just don’t want to resolve once more, then this doesn’t actually matter.

No code’ simply means ‘another person’s code’

If you’re utilizing Python+Pandas or R as an alternative of Straightforward Information Rework, then you’re additionally balancing on high of an unlimited pile of another person’s code.

We’re consultants, we don’t want no stinkin drag and drop

If you’re an skilled textual content programmer, then you definately aren’t actually the goal marketplace for these instruments. Straightforward Information Rework is aimed on the analyst or enterprise man making an attempt to wrangle a motley assortment of Excel and CSV information, not the skilled information scientist who goals in R or Pandas. Nevertheless even knowledgeable code jockey would possibly discover visible instruments quicker for some jobs.


Each visible and textual content programming have their locations. Visible programming is great for exploratory work and prototyping. Textual content based mostly programming is nearly at all times a more sensible choice for consultants creating manufacturing techniques the place efficiency is vital. After I wish to analyse some gross sales information, I take advantage of Straightforward Information Rework. However once I work on Straightforward Information Rework itself, I take advantage of C++.

Textual content programming is extra mature than visible programming. FORTRAN appeared within the Fifties. Functions with graphical consumer interfaces solely began turning into mainstream within the Eighties. A few of the shortcomings with visible programming replicate it’s relative lack of maturity and I believe we are able to anticipate to see continued enhancements within the tooling related to visible programming.

Visible programming works finest in particular domains, corresponding to:

  • 3d graphics and animations
  • picture processing
  • audio processing
  • recreation design
  • information wrangling

These domains are inclined to have:

  • A single, nicely outlined information sort. Corresponding to a desk of knowledge (dataframe) for information wrangling.
  • Properly outlined abstractions. Corresponding to be part of, to merge 2 tables of knowledge utilizing a standard key column.
  • A comparatively easy management stream. Sometimes a step-by-step pipeline, with out loops, recursion or complicated management stream.

My teenage son has been in a position to do some (I believe) pretty impressive 3D modelling and animations simply with Blender’s visible instruments.

Visible programming has been a lot much less profitable when utilized to generic programming, the place you want a lot of completely different information sorts, a variety of abstractions and doubtlessly complicated management stream.

I’ve been knowledgeable software program developer since 1987. Individuals (largely in advertising) have talked about changing code and programmers with level and click on instruments for a lot of that point. That’s clearly not going to occur. Textual content programming is the most effective method for some sorts of issues and can stay so for the foreseeable future. However domain-specific visible programming may be very highly effective and has a a lot decrease barrier to entry. Visible programming empowers folks to do issues that is perhaps out of their attain with textual content programming and would possibly by no means get achieved if they’ve to attend for the IT division to do it.

So, unsurprisingly, the reply to ‘which is best?’ may be very a lot ‘it relies upon’. Each have their place and neither goes away.

Additional studying:

Hacker News folk wisdom on visual programming

Visual Programming Codex

The life and times of Yahoo Pipes

The ‘No Code’ Delusion and HN discussion

‘Visual programming doesnt suck’ HN discussion (original article seems to have disappeared)

Visual Programming Languages – Snapshots

A Personal History of Visual Programming Environments

Is the future of data science drag and drop?

Rethinking Visual Programming with Go