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5.3: Refactor to Understand

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    Intent Iteratively refactor a part of a software system in order to validate and reflect your understanding of how it works.


    How can you understand a cryptic piece code?

    This problem is difficult because:

    • Cryptic code is difficult to read, hence to understand.

    • You may have some idea how the code works, but it is hard to verify because the code does not reflect your ideas.

    Yet, solving this problem is feasible because:

    • The piece of code is relatively small and has clearly defined boundaries.

    • Your development tools allow for rapid edit-compile cycles, so you can make some small changes and check whether you’re still able to compile the source-code or that your tests still run.

    • You have a source-code browser that allows you to query dependencies between source-code entities (i.e., which methods invoke a given operation, which methods access a given attribute, ...), so that you can infer its purpose.


    Iteratively rename and refactor the code to introduce meaningful names and to make sure the structure of the code reflects what the system is actually doing. Run regression tests after each change if they are available, else compile often to check whether your changes make sense. Decide what to do with the code after you have refactored it.


    Your primary goal here is to understand the system, not to improve the code. The changes you make to the code should therefore be treated as “experiments” to test your understanding of the code. As a consequence, you should make a copy of the code before you start. After you have refactored the code, it is possible that you release any of the changes you make, but you do not want to make that decision up front. Perhaps your refactoring experiments will actually improve the code, but it is just as likely that you will make a mess of things since you do not yet understand the code. It does not really matter at this stage. After a first experience you will be in a better position to do a proper job of refactoring.

    It is hard to do a good job of refactoring without having tests in place to verify that your changes have not broken anything. If adequate tests do not exist, you should not seriously consider keeping the results of your refactoring experiments. However, consider applying Write Tests to Understand in tandem with Refactor to Understand.

    You should select refactoring operations that will make design decisions more explicit in the code. The typical refactorings applied during this iterative restructuring are Rename Attribute, Rename Method, and Extract Method.

    The following guidelines will help you to find out where and how to apply these refactorings to improve the readability of the code. Many of these guidelines are considered to be just good, standard practice in Smalltalk programming [Bec97]. They apply, however, equally well to other programming languages. They can be applied in any order; each of them participates in the understanding of the others.

    • Rename attributes to convey roles. Focus on attributes with cryptic names. To find out about their roles, look at all the attribute accesses (including invocations of accessors methods). Afterwards, rename the attribute and its accessors according to its role, update all references and re-compile the system.

    • Rename methods to convey intent. To retrieve the intent of a method that does not have an intention revealing name, investigate all invocations and attribute uses, and deduce the method’s responsibility. Afterwards, rename the method according to its intent, update all invocations and re-compile the system.

    • Rename classes to convey purpose. To capture the purpose of class having an unclear name, investigate clients of the class by examining who is invoking its operations or who is creating instances of it. Afterwards, rename the class according to its purpose, update all references and re-compile the system.

    • Remove duplicated code. If you identify duplicated code, try to refactor it into a single location. As such, you will identify slight differences that you probably would not have noticed before refactoring and that are likely to reveal some subtle design issues.

    • Replace condition branches by methods. If you encounter conditions with large branches, extract the leaves as new (private) methods. To name these methods, study the condition until you understand it well enough to choose an intention revealing name.

    • Refactor method bodies to a consistent level of abstraction. Long method bodies with comments separating blocks of code violate the rule of the thumb that all statements in a single method body should have the same level of abstraction. Refactor such code by introducing a new (private) method for each separated block of code; name the method after the intent recorded in the comment.



    • Expose design. Not only will the refactoring process improve your understanding of the code, but this understanding will also become explicit in the structure of the code. This will make it easier to further document that understanding by means of Tie Code and Questions or Write Tests to Understand.

    • Incremental validation. Normally, understanding does not arise as part of a single revelation, but as the result of an iterative process in which earlier understanding is the base for the next iteration. Refactor to Understand encourages such an approach, because of its emphasis on small steps and frequent verification (either by running tests or either by compiling often).


    • Risk of introducing errors. The less you change the code, the smaller your chances of introducing errors. Small refactorings should be behavior-preserving, but it may be non-trivial to verify that even simple refactorings do not break the code. If you do not have adequate regression tests in place, it can be risky to introduce changes, or costly to develop the needed tests. For these reasons it is important to attempt to Refactor to Understand only on a working copy of the software.


    • Tool Support. Manually refactoring code can be tedious and risky [FBB+99]. Various tools, like the Refactoring Browser [RBJ97], greatly simplify the task of refactoring, and especially help to apply non-trivial refactorings such as Extract Method.
    • Acceptance of Changes. Refactoring someone else’s code may prove a lot harder than refactoring your own. A lot of companies have a strong culture of code ownership, so improving someone else’s code is often considered an insult. That is one of the reasons why you should not necessarily release the refactored version to the rest of the team.
    • When to stop. It is often difficult to stop changing code when you identify problems. Remember that your primary goal here is to just understand the system. When you have achieved that goal, it is time to stop.

    Known Uses

    Don Roberts and John Brant coined the term Refactor to Understand at ESUG ’97 and Smalltalk Solutions ’97 during a demonstration of the Refactoring Browser. They showed how they gradually understood an algorithm by renaming and refactoring its code. During the subsequent iterations of the pattern, the code slowly started to make sense and the design gradually became explicit in the code.

    We applied this pattern ourselves during a FAMOOS case study. We had to understand a single method of about 3000 lines of C++, which was a deeply nested conditional. We first replaced the leaf condition branches by methods, gradually working our way up the nesting structure. After several iterations, we discovered that this method was actually implementing a complete parser for a small command language.

    Harry Sneed reports several reengineering projects where a large Cobol program was refactored by removing all goto statements. However, he was later forced to reintroduce the go-to statements because the developers rejected his changes [Sne99].

    Related Patterns

    “Arranging the Furniture” [Tay00] is a pattern to help newcomers feel at home when they start in a new project. The pattern solution is: “An adopter should be encouraged to ‘move in’ by cosmetically arranging the code.”

    What Next

    Refactor to Understand works well in tandem with Tie Code and Questions. Refactorings are more expensive to implement than simply annotating the code, so first annotate, and then refactor. Also, consider to Write Tests to Understand as you refactor. These two activities reinforce each other since tests document your understanding of how a software artifact works, and refactoring helps you to expose its design. Furthermore, tests will help you to verify that your refactorings didn’t break anything.

    When you have finished a round of Refactor to Understand, you must decide what to do with your changes. If you discard the experimental code, you should consider applying Tie Code and Questions to annotate the code base with the knowledge you have acquired.

    This page titled 5.3: Refactor to Understand is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Serge Demeyer, Stéphane Ducasse, Oscar Nierstrasz.

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