mr mr cote

Educational, Investigative, and Absurd Writings by M. R. Côté

MozReview's Parental Issues

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As mentioned in my previous post on MozReview, one of the biggest sources of confusion is the way we present the “squashed” diffs, that is, the diff that show all of the changes in a commit series, the sum of all the proposed changes. We also refer to these as “parent” review requests, since they function as something to hold all the commits together. They are stored in MozReview as separate review requests, similar to the individual commits.

The confusion results from several things:

  • The links to the parent are confusing: they are currently labelled “Complete diff” and “Review summary”. “Complete diff” doesn’t clearly indicate that it is the complete diff of all commits together, and “Review summary” is almost totally meaningless, since it doesn’t include all the reviews left on the commits themselves—only reviews left on the overview diff.

  • There is nothing in the UI that clearly indicates that you are viewing the squashed diff. The only indication is that none of the rows in the commit table are highlighted. This is particularly confusing when there is only one commit, since the squashed diff is identical to the commit diff.

  • You can leave reviews on the squashed diff, but you can’t leave a “ship it”. This is because we are enforcing reviewers to review individual commits. However, because there isn’t much to distinguish parent review requests from commit review requests, it can look like the review dialog is just broken.

There are a few simple things we can do to fix these problems: use better link names, put a big “This is an overview of the commit series” message, and/or put a warning “You must review individual commits” on the review dialog. But really, we need to step back and think about the way we present the squashed diffs, and if they even make sense as a concept in MozReview.

To reiterate, squashed diffs provide a complete view of a whole commit series. The concept of a commit series doesn’t exist in core Review Board (nor does it exist in many other code-review tools), but it’s central to the idea of the repository-centric approach (like in GitHub pull requests). We added this concept by storing metadata resulting from pushes to tie commit series together with a parent, and we added UI elements like the commits table.

There are three broad ways we can deal with squashed diffs going forward. We need to settle on one and make the associated UI changes to make our model clear to users.

  1. Remove squashed diffs altogether.

    This is the simplest option. Squashed diffs aren’t actually technically necessary, and they can distract reviewers from the individual commits, which is where they should be spending most of their time, since, in most cases, this is how the code will be landing in the main repository. Some other repository-centric review tools, like Critic, don’t have the concept of an overview diff, so there are precedents. However, it might be a bit heavy handed to tell reviewers that they can’t view all the commits as a single diff (at least, without pulling them down locally).

  2. Continue to allow reviews, of some sort, on squashed diffs.

    This is what we have now: reviewers can leave reviews (at the moment, comments only) on squashed diffs. If we decide we want to continue to allow users to leave reviews on squashed diffs, we’ll need to both figure out a better UI to distinguish them from the individual commits and also settle several open questions:

    • Should reviewers be able to grant ship its (i.e. r+s) on squashed diffs? This would imply that the commits probably haven’t been reviewed individually, which would defeat the purpose of a commit-centric system. That said, reviewer time is very important, so we could have a trade off to support more work flows.

    • Conversely, should reviewers be able to leave comments on the parent diff? For simplicity, we could allow reviewers to leave a “ship it” review on a squashed diff that would apply to all commits but force them to leave any comments on diffs on the commits themselves. This would essentially remove the ability to review squashed diffs themselves but would leave the convenience of saying “this is all good”.

    • If we do want to allow review comments on squashed diffs, how should they be consolidated with the reviews on individual commits? Right now, reviews (general comments and comments on diffs) for the squashed diff and all commits are all on separate pages/views. Giving one view into all activity on a commit series would be ideal if we want to support squashed-diff reviews. Arguably, this would be valuable even if we didn’t have reviews on squashed diffs.

    For comparison, GitHub pull requests support this model. There are three tabs in a pull request: “Files changed”, which is the squashed diff; “Commits”, which is a list of commits with links to the individual commit diffs; and “Conversation”, which shows comments on the commits and on the squashed diff (along with other events like updates to the commits). The way they are presented is a little confusing (comments on the squashed diff are just labelled “<user> commented on the diff”, whereas comments on the diffs are of the form “<user> commented on <file> in <commit hash>”), but it is a useful single view. However, note that pull requests do not have the concept of a “ship it” or “r+”, which makes the GitHub interface simpler.

    This approach would support multiple reviewer work flows, but it is also the most complicated, both in terms of UX and technical implementation, and it waters down the philosophy behind MozReview.

  3. Provide read-only overview diffs.

    The third approach is to keep squashed diffs but make them read only. They could be used as reference, to get a big picture of the whole series, but since they are read only, they would be easily distinguishable from commits and would force reviewers to look at the individual commits. This is really just option 1 above, with a reference view of the whole series. It would be more work than option 1 but less than option 2, and would preserve the philosophy.

The MozReview team has been leaning towards option 3. We have a mock-up that strips away a lot of the UI that would be useless in this scenario and makes the intention clear. It’s not the prettiest, but it wouldn’t take too much work to get here:

However, we’d like to hear user feedback before making any decisions. Whichever option we go with, we’ll come up with a plan to get there that ideally will have incremental improvements, depending on the complexity of the full solution, so that we can start to fix things right away.

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