Empirical Software Engineering

, Volume 18, Issue 4, pp 699–745 | Cite as

Do background colors improve program comprehension in the #ifdef hell?

  • Janet Feigenspan
  • Christian Kästner
  • Sven Apel
  • Jörg Liebig
  • Michael Schulze
  • Raimund Dachselt
  • Maria Papendieck
  • Thomas Leich
  • Gunter Saake


Software-product-line engineering aims at the development of variable and reusable software systems. In practice, software product lines are often implemented with preprocessors. Preprocessor directives are easy to use, and many mature tools are available for practitioners. However, preprocessor directives have been heavily criticized in academia and even referred to as “#ifdef hell”, because they introduce threats to program comprehension and correctness. There are many voices that suggest to use other implementation techniques instead, but these voices ignore the fact that a transition from preprocessors to other languages and tools is tedious, erroneous, and expensive in practice. Instead, we and others propose to increase the readability of preprocessor directives by using background colors to highlight source code annotated with ifdef directives. In three controlled experiments with over 70 subjects in total, we evaluate whether and how background colors improve program comprehension in preprocessor-based implementations. Our results demonstrate that background colors have the potential to improve program comprehension, independently of size and programming language of the underlying product. Additionally, we found that subjects generally favor background colors. We integrate these and other findings in a tool called FeatureCommander, which facilitates program comprehension in practice and which can serve as a basis for further research.


Empirical software engineering Software visualization Program comprehension Software product lines Preprocessors FeatureCommander 



We are grateful to Mathias Frisch for helpful discussions and to Jana Schumann, Veit Köppen, and Thomas Thüm for their support with the experiments. Also thanks to all the reviewers of this article. Feigenspan’s and Saake’s work is supported by BMBF project ViERforES (01IM10002B), Kästner’s work partly by ERC (#203099), and Apel’s work is supported by the German Research Foundation (DFG—AP 206/2, AP 206/4, and LE 912/13). Schulze’s work is part of the project SAFE. SAFE is funded by BMBF (project ID: 01IS11019) and DGCIS and is in the framework of the ITEA2, EUREKA cluster program Σ! 3674. Dachselt’s work is funded by the ”Stifterverband für die Deutsche Wissenschaft” from funds of the Claussen-Simon-Endowment. The first experiment was conducted as part of Feigenspan’s master’s thesis while she visited the Metop Research Center.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Janet Feigenspan
    • 1
  • Christian Kästner
    • 2
  • Sven Apel
    • 3
  • Jörg Liebig
    • 3
  • Michael Schulze
    • 4
  • Raimund Dachselt
    • 1
  • Maria Papendieck
    • 1
  • Thomas Leich
    • 5
  • Gunter Saake
    • 1
  1. 1.School of Computer ScienceUniversity of MagdeburgMagdeburgGermany
  2. 2.Philipps University MarburgMarburgGermany
  3. 3.University of PassauPassauGermany
  4. 4.pure-systemsMagdeburgGermany
  5. 5.Metop Research InstituteMagdeburgGermany

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