Unconstant Conjunction A personal blog

Principles for Pipe-Friendly APIs in R Packages

    28 March 2018 // tagged

In the past few years the APIs of the wildly popular tidyverse packages have coalesced around the pipe operator (%>%). R users familiar with this ecosystem of packages are now accustomed to writing “pipelines” where code is expressed as a series of steps composed with the pipe operator.

For example, plenty of data science code basically boils down to:

data() %>% transform() %>% summarise()

(This is even more evident if you subscribe to Wickham & Grolemund’s view that models are a “low-dimensional summary of your data”.)

There are plenty of resources on how to use pipes to re-write you R code. There are fewer on the implications of pipes on how R functions and package APIs are designed. What should package authors should keep in mind, knowing that their users are likely to use their functions in pipelines?

My own experience has led me to compile four principles for writing pipe- friendly APIs for R packages:

  1. Only one argument is going to be “piped” into your functions, so you should design them to accommodate this. The first argument should be what you’d expect to be piped in; all other arguments should be parameters with meaningful default values. If you think you’ll always need more than one argument, consider wrapping them up in a lightweight S3 class.

  2. Think carefully about the output of your functions, since this will be what is passed down the pipeline. Strive to always return a single type of output (a data frame, a numeric vector, etc). Never return NULL, because very few functions can take NULL as an input. (To signify empty values, use zero-row data frames or vectors with NA.)

  3. Prefer “pure” functions – e.g. those that have no “side effects” that mutate global state – whenever possible. Users think about pipelines as a linear progression of steps. The transparency of pure functions make them easy to reason about in this fashion.

  4. When your functions must have side effects (e.g. when printing or plotting), return the original object (instead of the conventional NULL) so that pipelines can continue.

I’ve found that being explicit about these design goals has improved the quality of my own package interfaces; perhaps they can be of use to others.

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