What Makes Good Code? - Should Every Class Have An Interface?

What’s An Interface?

I mentioned in the first post of this series that I’ll likely be referring to C# in most of these posts. I think the concept of an interface in C# extends to other languages–sometimes by a different name–so the discussion here may still be applicable. Some examples in C++, Javaand Python to get you going for comparisons.

From MSDN:

An interface contains definitions for a group of related functionalities that a class or a struct can implement.
By using interfaces, you can, for example, include behavior from multiple sources in a class. That capability is important in C# because the language doesn’t support multiple inheritance of classes. In addition, you must use an interface if you want to simulate inheritance for structs, because they can’t actually inherit from another struct or class.

It’s also important to note that an interface decouples the definition of something from its implementation. Decoupled code is, in general, something that programmers are always after. If we refer back to the points I defined for what makes good code (again, in my opinion), we can see how interfaces should help with that.

  • Extensibility: Referring to interfaces in code instead of concrete classes allows a developer to swap out the implementation easier (i.e. extend support for different data providers in your data layer). They provide a specification to be met should a developer want to extend the code base with new concrete implementations.
  • Maintainability: Interfaces make refactoring an easier job (when the interface signature doesn’t have to change). A developer can get the flexibility of modifying the implementation that already exists or creating a new one provided that it meets the interface.
  • Testability: Referring to interfaces in code instead of concrete classes allows mocking frameworks to leverage mocked objects so that true unit tests are easier to write.
  • Readability: I’m neutral on this. I don’t think interfaces are overly helpful for making code more readable, but I don’t think they inherently make code harder to read.

I’m only trying to focus on some of the pro’s here, and we’ll use this sub-series to explore if these hold true across the board. So… should every class have a backing interface?

An Example

Let’s walk through a little example. In this example, we’ll look at an object that “does stuff”, but it requires something that can do a string lookup to “do stuff” with. We’ll look at how using an interface can make this type of code extensible!

First, here is our interface that we’ll use for looking up strings:

public interface IStringLookup
{
    string GetString(string name);
}

And here is our first implementation of something that can lookup strings for us. It’ll just lookup an XML node and pull a value from it. (How it actually does this stuff isn’t really important for the example, which is why I’m glossing over it):

public sealed class XmlStringLookup : IStringLookup
{
    private readonly XmlDocument _xmlDocument;

    public XmlStringLookup(XmlDocument xmlDocument)
    {
        _xmlDocument = xmlDocument;
    }

    public string GetString(string name)
    {
        return _xmlDocument
            .GetElementsByTagName(name)
            .Cast<XmlElement>()
            .First()
            .Value;
    }
}

This will be used to plug into the rest of the code:

private static int Main(string[] args)
{
    var obj = CreateObj();
    var stringLookup = CreateStringLookup();
    
    obj.DoStuff(stringLookup);
 
    return 0;
}
 
private static IMyObject CreateObj()
{
    return new MyObject();
}
 
private static IStringLookup CreateStringLookup()
{
    return new XmlStringLookup(new XmlDocument());
}
 
public interface IMyObject
{
    void DoStuff(IStringLookup stringLookup);
}
 
public class MyObject : IMyObject
{
    public void DoStuff(IStringLookup stringLookup)
    {
        var theFancyString = stringLookup.GetString("FancyString");
        
        // TODO: do stuff with this string
    }
}

In the code snippet above, you’ll see our Main() method creating an instance of “MyObject” which is the thing that’s going to “DoStuff” with our XML string lookup. The important thing to note is that the DoStuff method takes in the interface IStringLookup that our XML class implements.

Now, XML string lookups are great, but let’s show why interfaces make this code extensible. Let’s swap out an XML lookup for an overly simplified CSV string lookup! Here’s the implementation:

public sealed class CsvStringLookup : IStringLookup
{
    private readonly StreamReader _reader;
 
    public CsvStringLookup(StreamReader reader)
    {
        _reader = reader;
    }
 
    public string GetString(string name)
    {
        string line;
        while ((line = _reader.ReadLine()) != null)
        {
            var split = line.Split(',');
            if (split[0] != name)
            {
                continue;
            }
 
            return split[1];
        }
 
        throw new InvalidOperationException("Not found.");
    }
}

Now to leverage this class, we only need to modify ONE line of code from the original posting! Just modify CreateStringLookup() to be:

private static IStringLookup CreateStringLookup()
{
    return new CsvStringLookup(new StreamReader(File.OpenRead(@"pathtosomefile.txt")));
}

And voila! We’ve been able to extend our code to use a COMPLETELY different implementation of a string lookup with relatively no code change. You could make the argument that if you needed to modify the implementation for a buggy class that as long as you were adhering to the interface, you wouldn’t need to modify much surrounding code (just like this example). This would be a point towards improved maintainability in code.

“But wait!” you shout, “I could have done the EXACT same thing with an abstract class instead of the IStringLookup interface you big dummy! Interfaces are garbage!”

And you wouldn’t be wrong about the abstract class part! It’s totally true that IStringLookup could instead have been an abstract class like StringLookupBase (or something…) and the benefits would still apply! That’s a really interesting point, so let’s keep that in mind as we continue on through out this whole series. The little lesson here? It’s not the interface that gives us this bonus, it’s the API boundary and level of abstraction we introduced (something that does string lookups). Both an interface and abstract class happen to help us a lot here.

Continue to Part 2