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Programmers need tools to help explore large software systems when performing software evolution tasks. A variety of tools have been created to improve the effectiveness of such exploration. The usefulness of these tools has been argued largely on the basis of case studies, small narrowly-focussed experiments, or non-human-based experiments. In this paper, we report on a more rigorously controlled study of three specialized software exploration tools in which professional programmers used the tools to plan complex change tasks to a medium-sized code base. We found that the tools had little apparent effect; the effects observed instead appear to be dominated by individual styles and strategies of the programmers and characteristics of the tasks. In addition to presenting the results of the study, this paper introduces the use of two experimental evaluation aids: the NASA task load index (TLX) for assessing task difficulty and distance profiles for assessing the to which programmers remain on-track.
Date of Conference: 26-29 June 2007