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What’s wrong with computational notebooks?

What’s wrong with computational notebooks?

What’s wrong with computational notebooks?


This submit is a casual abstract of our latest CHI’20 paper, “What’s Wrong with Computational Notebooks? Pain Points, Needs, and Design Opportunities”. Check out the preprint for extra particulars. Special because of Microsoft for supporting this work.

Computational notebooks, reminiscent of Jupyter Notebooks, Azure Notebooks, and Databricks, are wildly in style with knowledge scientists. But as these notebooks are used for increasingly more advanced duties, knowledge scientists run into increasingly more ache factors. In this submit I’ll very briefly summarize our methodology, findings, and a few alternatives for instruments.


To perceive the ache factors, we carried out a mixed-methods examine that concerned (a) observing 5 knowledge scientists as they labored with notebooks, (b) interviewing 15 knowledge scientists, and (c) surveying 156 knowledge scientists. We transcribed the recordings from the observations and interviews, carried out qualitative evaluation on the transcriptions, after which used the survey to validate and triangulate the findings with a broader inhabitants.

Findings: 9 ache factors

We recognized the next 9 classes of painpoints primarily based on our observations and interviews:

  • Setup. Participants acknowledged they usually downloaded knowledge exterior of the pocket book from varied knowledge sources since interfacing with them programmatically was an excessive amount of trouble. Not solely that, however notebooks usually crash with massive knowledge units (probably as a result of notebooks working in an internet browser). Once the info is loaded, it then needs to be cleaned, which members complained is a repetitive and time consuming process that entails copying and pasting code from their private “library” of generally used capabilities.
  • Explore and analyze. Modeling and visualizing knowledge are widespread duties however can change into irritating. For instance, we noticed one participant tweak the parameters of a plot greater than 20 occasions in lower than 5 minutes. Moreover, constructing fashions break the fast and iterative workflow of notebooks since it might take a number of minutes or longer to complete.
  • Manage code. Notebooks would not have all the options of an IDE, like built-in documentation or refined autocomplete, so members usually change backwards and forwards between an IDE (e.g., VS Code) and their pocket book. One participant we noticed stored each home windows side-by-side and duplicate and pasted code between the 2 home windows quickly as they labored. Another main ache level is managing bundle dependencies. Participants additionally indicated that they develop their very own processes for debugging and testing, and a few expressed irritation with the shortage of software help.
  • Reliability. It will not be unusual for a pocket book’s kernel to crash in the midst of an operation, which can go away the pocket book or knowledge in an inconsistent state with out correct suggestions to the consumer. Participants commented that they discover it simpler to simply restart and run your entire pocket book once more with hopes that it does not crash. Additionally, notebooks have limitations relating to large knowledge, which requires customers to maneuver to a unique software set (e.g., Java or Python scripts).
  • Archival. Participants expressed a lot problem with utilizing model management programs for notebooks. For instance, the outputs are saved within the notebooks alongside with metadata, which can all the time point out adjustments to the model management system. Searching and discovering data from earlier notebooks can be an unsolved problem.
  • Security. Participants have been involved about delicate knowledge that will must be masked from different customers whereas nonetheless permitting them to execute the pocket book. Notebooks additionally do not help restrictions reminiscent of read-only or run-only, thus requiring exterior instruments to implement entry.
  • Share and collaborate. While it’s straightforward to share the pocket book file, it’s usually not straightforward to share the info. For instance, the info might require entry to a database. Participants stated that they usually have to create documentation to clarify methods to set up and setup any needed dependencies to run a pocket book. Furthermore, there may be lacking help for sharing the pocket book outcomes with others, particularly non-technical customers, for the needs of experiences or displays.
  • Reproduce and reuse. Due to the dependency points and surroundings settings, it’s unlikely that a pocket book will work out of the field. Reusing even small parts of a pocket book is troublesome because of bundle dependencies and even dependencies on different cells throughout the pocket book.
  • Notebooks as merchandise. If a big knowledge set is used, as one may anticipate in manufacturing, then the pocket book will lose the interactivity whereas it’s executing. Also, notebooks encourage “quick and dirty” code that will require rewriting earlier than it’s manufacturing high quality. For instance, members indicated that notebooks should not all the time designed to be executed high to backside, which would require further work to repair the execution order for a standalone artifact.

Opportunities for Tools

Our findings spotlight quite a few alternatives for instruments. From my very own observations and conversations with knowledge scientists, I feel there are three main areas that instruments ought to help:

  • Traditional growth instruments. Notebooks are lacking options that conventional IDEs have, reminiscent of autocomplete, documentation, debugging, unit testing, and refactoring. We noticed members repeatedly transferring between instruments to make the most of these totally different options. Should IDE options be moved into notebooks or ought to notebooks be moved into IDEs?
  • Cleanup and extraction. There are alternatives for instruments to help in cleansing up notebooks earlier than archiving, sharing, or productizing. Since lots of notebooks are began for exploratory functions, it may be lots of work to scrub them up or to extract particular parts.
  • Feedback of pocket book state. Notebooks might present extra suggestions to the consumer. What is the present state of the pocket book? Which cells are depending on one another? Which cells must be re-run?

Hopefully this paper supplies proof for the necessity for my analysis on this space! For much more particulars, check out the complete paper and let me know you probably have any questions.

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