Visual Programming Makes App Creation Easy

What is a Visual Programming Language? App Creation Made Easy

In recent years, programming has become more accessible than ever. As the world awakens to the importance of programming, software engineers have developed a number of tool kits to make programming skill acquisition easier regardless of your background or environment. Visual programming languages (VPLs) can provide neophytes with a set of systems to learn how to build applications graphically.

What Are VPLs, and Why Use Them?

A visual programming language (sometimes called a graphical programming language) lets you write computer and web applications using visual tools like boxes or images. Logical connections are usually displayed in the form of lines or wires. All of this allows you to conceptualize and map out a project’s operations from data input to output in a way that’s intuitive.

Scratch is arguably the best most recognizable visual programming language. It is a language primarily geared towards helping children. It helps them learn how to code in a gamified environment.

Scratch interface. Source: Thenerdie / CC BY-SA

The simple graphical nature of tools like Scratch makes them ideal for building systems that teach people how to code. It primes novice software engineers and enthusiasts to think like programmers. Additionally, they have unique characteristics that could minimize many of the common difficulties that new software developers encounter. Let’s go over some of these so we can see how a visual programming tool can help to mitigate them.

Challenges of Learning to Program

Lack of Technical Background

For the budding developer and enthusiast, learning how to program may be your first experience with any technical subject. This could make getting started quite daunting especially if your expertise is in more subjective or free-flowing areas like art. Although your creativity can be repurposed to certain aspects of app building, the exacting and formal elements and logic of coding can be hard to grasp.

int main() {
    std::cout << "Hello, world!";
    return 0;
}

Difficulty

There’s simply no getting around it. Today, if you want to learn how to code, you will have to wrap your head around some pretty tough concepts. You will have to build problem-solving skills. In fact, you will essentially have to learn to think in a totally different way – think like a software developer.

Programming requires a thought process that may feel quite unusual to some people. On the bright side, this is something that becomes natural with practice. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make things any easier when you are just starting out.

Furthermore, educators at a variety of educational levels also face challenges when teaching software development. Today, students come to the table with a range of prior skill sets and backgrounds. For example, a first-year computer science course might contain several students who are astute at maths or have been hacking systems for fun since they were children.

However, according to Science Daily, a background in languages may potentially make you a better coder than a background in maths. Essentially, at the other end of the spectrum, you could find that certain students have more limited technical skills. Some might even struggle with basic computer literacy.

In an ideal world, there would be no reason for this to be a significant barrier. Students with different backgrounds would simply advance at their own pace. But in the classroom, it presents a significant challenge to the instructor, who has to deliver the same course to all the students despite their differing needs.

How VPLs Help

Visual programming languages and tools provide easy-to-use editors that address a lot of the problems discussed above. Most people find concrete images easier to grasp than abstract concepts or formal syntax. Even better, VPLs include a list of commonly-used objects and actions that you can immediately insert into your program.

When working with text-based code, you start off with a blank code editor and must conceptualize how to represent your program starting with a line of code. This can be particularly intimidating for a novice user.

A visual-based programming language removes this barrier by presenting you with systems of objects that you can drag and drop to create working “code” right away. Choosing from a list of predefined elements is simpler than conceiving and writing an entire program from scratch. The graphical interfaces of visual programming tools make it easy to go from a general idea in your head to a working program.

This ease of use is a defining feature of visual-based software development. It makes software development much more approachable for those who are anxious about learning, as well as beginners who have grown frustrated after grappling with a more standard language.

The simplicity of getting started means that a user can still focus on solving problems or building applications without the overhead of learning syntax and complicated computer software development constructs before they are fully able to understand them. Additionally, having learners on a more level playing field also benefits teachers, who are able to focus more on instruction and less on students’ different backgrounds.

VPLs Are Perfect for Kids

There has been a growing understanding of the need to integrate programming instruction into children’s school curricula from a young age. However, this presents its own issues: all of the difficulties listed above are multiplied for children. And for the youngest students, it isn’t even feasible to teach traditional text-based code.

Visual programming removes these obstacles and makes learning to code enjoyable for children, so it’s no surprise that they are already being used with success. A 2016 study found significant benefits from the use of Scratch in the teaching of programming to elementary school students in Spain.

Professionals Use VPLs Too

While a visual programming language can still be great for teaching new software developers, they are useful for experienced developers and other professionals as well. They are commonly used by domain experts in various fields who need to get some programming work done as easily as possible.

Researchers and practitioners without any existing coding skills can benefit greatly from the ability to create functional web and desktop programs for computers (and other devices/hardware) without a huge time investment upfront.

Popular Visual Programming Languages

A number of visual programming tools are now widely used by people across several industries and for a variety of different purposes. Here’s a sampling of some notable ones.

  • As mentioned, the top-known example is MIT’s Scratch, which allows kids to create fun projects for computers and share them with the rest of the community. As of this writing, over 50 million projects have been made by Scratch users.
  • App Inventor, also managed by MIT, makes it easy to create apps for Android (and soon iOS) devices through a simple drag-and-drop interface highly reminiscent of the one used by Scratch.
  • miniBloq is utilized to write programs for Arduino microcontrollers through a set of blocks. It has been used to teach programming at the elementary level in Argentina, reaching over 60,000 students in one province alone. Projects made in miniBloq produce real C/C++ code used by Arduino.
  • LabVIEW is a tool that is widely used by scientists and engineers for simulations, measurements, number crunching, and other common tasks. It utilizes a clean user interface that is powerful enough for experienced developers to create complex desktop and web programs for computers and other hardware. However, it’s accessible to domain experts with no programming background.
  • Bubble is a basic visual development environment that makes it possible to create web applications through a visual interface. Unlike some other drag-and-drop website creators, Bubble allows users to customize the behavior of their apps in some fairly complex ways while maintaining type and/or class control.

Visual Programming Languages Vs. Traditional Text-Based Programming Languages

As we know, visual programming requires you to use graphical elements to build programs and most regular languages and tools are text-based. This leads to a number of differences between the two that affect the process of creating computer code and the characteristics of the projects you can create. Below, we compare and contrast them on a number of key points, revealing some of the main pros and cons of visual programming compared to text-based programming.

Simplicity is the bread-and-butter of visual programming. Most are designed to make the initial learning process as easy as possible with drag-and-drop interfaces and predefined actions to choose from.

Conversely, traditional languages could be more difficult for would-be developers to get started with. People must master a number of important concepts and processes before they can be truly productive.

Power and Flexibility

Designing a programming language still involves a number of trade-offs. Particularly, there is a well-known trade-off between ease of use and expressive power.

While visual programming can be much easier to use for straightforward tasks, they can be cumbersome for more complex projects. Employing visual objects to describe complicated logic and control flow can result in a jumble of nodes and connections that is incredibly difficult to read and manage, defeating the original purpose of a VPL.

Traditional text-based code, on the other hand, allows for much greater flexibility in describing computations. To put it simply, it’s usually easier to express certain concepts through visual programming than it is in text-based programming. However, it’s certainly easier to code more advanced operations through an old-fashioned textual programming language.

Debugging

Finding and fixing errors in your projects, also known as debugging, is an important part of programming that is often underappreciated by beginners. Bugs will creep into your code no matter how careful you are, and it can be surprisingly difficult to locate and resolve them.

Debugging can be either easier or harder in a VPL. Since you have immediate visual feedback for everything in your program, it can potentially be easier to figure out what went wrong. Conversely, a traditional language typically has extensive debugging support built into their development environments. As your projects become larger and more complex, the benefits of these tools become obvious.

Performance

By simplifying the nitty-gritty details of a low-level language, visual programming becomes easier to work with. Unfortunately, this also makes it much harder to create programs that perform well.

Today, in order to write computationally efficient code, you usually need to be able to tweak certain things that VPLs tend to sweep under the rug. Thus, when performance is a concern, a traditional language would have a large advantage over a visual one.

Predefined Tasks

While traditional text-based code has the edge when it comes to raw power, VPLs can shine when they are designed to solve specific problems in a particular field. For instance, LabVIEW contains many tools for accomplishing common tasks needed by scientists and engineers. But when you need custom functionality not provided by the language, it’s not always easy to build within the VPL itself. In this case, there’s no substitute for the flexibility of general-purpose textual programming.

Learning Potential

Since many VPLs are specifically designed to aid learning, they make for excellent stepping stones early on. However, that’s not the whole story. At some point, as you continue to progress in your abilities, you may hit a wall due to the inflexibility of visual languages and tools.

If you are interested in eventually developing serious programming skills, there will come a time when you should transition to a conventional language like Python or Java so you can start to get some experience writing and debugging more complex code. You will find that much of your programming experience in a VPLtransfers to other languages and tools since the process of creating software projects in VPLs teaches you general concepts that apply across different languages.

Trends in Visual Programming

Today, visual languages are increasingly employed both in education and in domain-specific contexts like add-ons to established software. While visual programming may not be suitable for every application, their growing adoption suggests that they are not going anywhere.

Combining VPLs with Textual Programming

A growing trend sees some development platforms combining visual programming with traditional languages in integrated environments. A standout example is the Blueprints scripting system in the Unreal Engine 4 game development engine. Blueprints allows new programmers to manipulate game objects as visual nodes.

Users of Unreal Engine are given the choice to work in pure C++, Blueprints or a combination of the two. A developer can use Blueprints to add functionality to their game or quickly prototype a new game. In fact, it’s possible to produce full games entirely through the use of a VPL.

Responses to a StackOverflow question indicate that even large game companies producing AAA games use these visual scripting capabilities as part of their workflows. With Blueprint, non-programmers are able to make substantial contributions to game development without having to learn the intricacies of even the most basic of traditional languages. For large, demanding games made in Unreal Engine 4, a common approach is to use C++ for core elements of the game that are especially complex or require maximum performance. Blueprints can then be utilized to extend functionality in a simple way.

Blockly: Making it Easy to Create a Visual Programming Language

This widely used tool is another indicator that visual programming is here to stay. Google’s Blockly is a library that allows websites to easily include their own block-based visual code editors. For example, this could be a site dedicated to teaching programming to kids could define their own visual language specifically suited to their audience.

All projects made through Blockly generate valid code in a number of regular text-based languages like JavaScript. As Wired explains, this means that software created through Blockly is able to be used as “training wheels” by new software engineers, who can build their first projects using the graphical Blockly editor which then allows you to read the underlying code and re-use it in the form of a library or a set of code blocks.

Summing Up

One of the most striking aspects of visual programming is the sheer diversity of VPLs out there. They are utilized for teaching beginners, crunching numbers, analyzing data, creating rich video games, and more. The visual approach to programming has proven its worth as an important part of the overall programming ecosystem.

Regardless of where things go in the future, the value of virtual programming for learning is already clear. If there are children in your life who want to learn to code, consider introducing them to Scratch. Or if you are interested in creating your own mobile app, then App Inventor might be a natural place to start.

Whether you dabble a little or go on to learn programming in a more serious fashion, some time spent learning to build programs can open up a lot of doors.