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Constructor Overloads: Know When to Say When

Paralysis By Options

Do you ever find yourself in a situation where some API or another requires you to instantiate an object? (If you’re reading this blog, the answer is probably “yes”). What do you usually do at this point? Instantiate it, compile, and make sure you’re good before poking around to see what your new object has to offer, usually in the form of auto-complete/intellisense? I think that’s what most would do. Word DOC APIs and other such things are all well and good as a backup plan, but let’s get serious – you want to play with the object and read the instructions only if you can’t figure out what to do. And the last thing you want to do is go reading the code of that class or, worse still, hunt down the guy that wrote it.

But, what about those times that the instantiation gets a little sidetracked? You go to instantiate the object and it’s like wandering into a Baskin Robbins knowing only that you vaguely feel like ice cream. So many flavors to choose from, but which is the right one?

In the picture above, I’ve decided I want an Aquarium object, and Intellisense informs me that there are no less than 11 ways that I can make this happen. That’s right, 11. My immediate, gut reaction to this information is to go off to implement the “AdoptADog” method instead and put this nonsense off until later.

But Aren’t More Choices Better?

With constructors, no, not really. I’ve talked before about the problem with bloated constructors and my opinion that a constructor should do nothing but ensure that the object initializes with class level variants established. With that in mind, either some of these overloads are doing more than is necessary or else some of them fail to meet this basic criteria. The former is pointless speculative coding and the latter means that your objects can be instantiated in states that are not valid. Either one of these is a problem.

I believe there is a tendency, especially if you don’t practice TDD or even write unit tests at all, to go off on tangents about how developers may want to instantiate objects. Maybe developer X will want to instantiate an aquarium with all defaults whereas developer Y will want to specify how many gallons it holds and how many fish are in it. Maybe developer Z just wants to initialize with the kind of rocks that go in the bottom or the kind of light that shines on top. Maybe everyone wants to initialize specifying salt or fresh water. Let’s think of every combination of things anyone may want to do to this object and offer them all up as constructor overloads, right?

But you know what? That’s what the public API is for with accessors and mutators. Everyone can do it that way. Save the constructor for things without which the aquarium makes no sense (e.g. capacity) and let everyone call a property setter or a mutator for the rest. C# even has some syntactic sugar for just this occasion.

If you add in a bunch of overloads, you may think that you’re being helpful, but you’re really just muddying the waters and paralyzing your clients with options. I may want to instantiate an aquarium and use it to hold a bunch of dirt from my back yard — so why I am I being offered all of these options about fish and water and aquarium plants and plastic divers? I don’t care about any of that. But, I’ll hesitate to omit it because for all I know I should instantiate the object with those things. I mean, with all of those overloads, some are probably vestigial or at least less frequently used. I don’t want to use something that might be deprecated or untested and nobody wants to maintain a bunch of methods that may never even be used.

In the end, what I’ll wind up doing is digging out the word document that describes this thing or going to the developer who wrote it and asking which one to use. And that sucks. If you offer me only one option — the minimal constructor that establishes the invariants and forces any critical dependencies on the client — I’ll use that option and go on my merry way. There will be nothing to think about and certainly nothing to read word documents or send emails about. And that is the essence of providing usable code and good abstractions.

(And incidentally, since Visual Studio 2010, C# has really taken away any good excuse for a lot of overloads with optional/default parameters).