Interface Segregation Principle is Unhelpful but Inoffensive (SOLID is not solid)

November 21, 2019

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As mentioned in the original post, I’m realizing that the SOLID principles are not as…solid as it would seem. In that post, I outlined the problems I see with the Single Responsibility Principle, and in the second, I recommended ignoring the Open/Closed Principle, since it is confusing and most reasonable interpretations give bad advice. In the third post, I talk about how the Liskov Substitution Principle is too narrowly focused on the wrong problem, and doesn’t really give usable design guidance.

Now, I want to talk about the Interface Segregation Principle, which prescribes are very strange solution to the problem of coupling, and the reality is, we should just be talking directly about coupling and cohesion and be very careful about over-optimizing for one or the other.

The Wikipedia article states

[Interface Segregation Principle (ISP)] splits interfaces that are very large into smaller and more specific ones so that clients will only have to know about the methods that are of interest to them…ISP is intended to keep a system decoupled and thus easier to refactor, change, and redeploy.

This seems quite reasonable, however the principle as stated says that “no client should be forced to depend on methods it does not use” (emphasis mine).

First, let’s just state that a dynamic language like Ruby automatically complies with this principle because the definition of what a client depends on is what it uses. Ruby doesn’t define types and so as long as the object you pass into a routine responds to the methods that routine calls, the code “works”1.

So for people working in a dynamic language like JS or Ruby, this principle is wholly pointless as stated.

That said, the Wikipedia details present a different problem and solution, namely that your classes should not have too many methods in them. This gets at cohesion, which we talked about, but it also starts to get at another core concept: coupling.

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…it’s actually about coupling

Coupling is:

…the degree of interdependence between software modules; a measure of how closely connected two routines or modules are…

It’s usually accepted that tightly coupled code—code that has lots of interdependencies—is worse than loosely coupled code. Wikipedia outlines the disadvantages with tightly-coupled code:

  • A change in one module usually forces a ripple effect of changes in other modules.
  • Assembly of modules might require more effort and/or time due to the increased inter-module dependency.
  • A particular module might be harder to reuse and/or test because dependent modules must be included.

These are all fair points, however there is a tradeoff with taking this to the extremes that the principle would have us do. De-coupled systems can be hard to understand, even if their individual parts are simpler. Tightly coupled bits of code that are cohesive can be much simpler to understand than de-coupled code.

In fact, coupling is almost always mentioned with cohesion, because there is a tension there. You want your code to be de-coupled, but also cohesive. You can’t have it both ways—there is a balance to be struck, and advice to “always decouple” is not going to find that balance.

Design is About Balancing Cohesion and Coupling (not blindly following principles)

Let’s take an example and see how over-emphasizing de-coupling can lead to a poor design. Consider a class to access data about widgets in our database:

public class WidgetRepository { 
  public Set<Widget> find(String query) {
    // ...
  }

  public Widget load(int id) {
    // ...
  }

  public void save(Widget w) {
    // ...
  }
}

This interface has a lot of cohesion—finding, loading, and saving widgets go together pretty well. However, any class that depends on WidgetRepository yet only calls some of these methods is technically being “forced to depend on methods it does not use”.

A solution—and I have seen this in real life applied to a real project—is to make every method its own interface:

public interface WidgetLoader {
  pulbic Widget load(int id);
}
public interface WidgetSaver {
  public void save(Widget widget);
}
public interface WidgetFinder {
  public Set<Widget> find(String query);
}

public class WidgetRepository implements 
    WidgetLoader,
    WidgetSaver,
    WidgetFinder { 

    // ...
}

This is, in every way, compliant with the Interface Segregation Principle as stated. No client is required to depend on a method it does not use. If you just need to call find, you depend on a WidgetFinder. If you need to also call save, you depend on a WidgetSaver, too.

This is not a good design, especially applied broadly to your project (which the principle says you should do!). This would create an explosion of naming, and tons of objects with no cohesive concepts. But we will have decoupled and avoided violating a SOLID principle!

That said, the interface is a lens through which we can evaluate coupling and cohesion, so let’s see that.

Interfaces Tell the Story of Coupling and Cohesion

Suppose we have a need to re-order all widgets where our supplies are running low. The logic for this is to query the database for all widgets with a quantity less than 10, and then make an API call to our fulfillment provider.

Let’s say we add this to our WidgetRepository:

public class WidgetRepository { 
  public void reOrderWidgets() {
    for (Widget w: this.find("quantity < 10")) {
      // call the fulfillment API
    }
  }

  public Set<Widget> find(String query) {
    // ...
  }

  public Widget load(int id) {
    // ...
  }

  public void save(Widget w) {
    // ...
  }
}

This doesn’t seem ideal. Re-ordering widgets doesn’t have as much to do with accessing the database of widgets, so our interface is less cohesive. It also means that any user of a WidgetRepository now has access to reorder widgets and this is a form of coupling we don’t want. It’s hard to be precise about why we don’t want this, but a way to think about it is cohesion and coupling.

The reOrderWidgets method reduces the cohesion of the WidgetRepository’s interface, and it increases the coupling of concepts in the system. Clients that just want to access the widgets database now also are coupled to the re-ordering logic.

Maybe we are OK with this. But maybe we aren’t. We now have a way to discuss the actual impact of this proposed change. And supposing we are not OK with this, we don’t want to just segregate the interface. We want to make a totally different class:

class WidgetReOrdering {
  private WidgetRepository widgetRepository;

  public WidgetReOrdering(WidgetRepository widgetRepository) {
    this.widgetRepository = widgetRepository;
  }

  public void reOrderWidgets() {
    for (Widget w: this.widgetRepository.find("quantity < 10")) {
      // call the fulfillment API
    }
  }
}

Although our solution was to segregate the interface and implementation, it’s hard for me to see how the Interface Segregation Principle as stated really helped. Instead, we avoided a troubling design by talking directly about cohesion and coupling. Importantly, the coupling we were concerned about was conceptual, not code. If our WidgetRepository needed a new method to delete widgets, that would’ve increased coupling of code, but not of concept.

This is the way to approach design. Reducing coupling at all costs is not the right way.

My advice: segregating interfaces is a technique to reduce coupling and increase cohesion, however it can also reduce cohesion if carried to the extreme. Don’t always do it. Focus on balancing the cohesion and coupling in your system.

Now we come to the last principle, the Dependency Inversion Principle.

  1. 1Of course, you could also say a language like Ruby makes it impossible to comply because in Ruby you can call any method you want any time, including private methods and instance variables. Conclusion is still that it's useless for Rubyists.