Java API Design Checklist

There are many different rules and tradeoffs to consider during Java API design. Like any complex task, it tests the limits of our attention and memory. Similar to the pilots’ pre-flight checklist, this list helps software designers remember obvious and not so obvious rules while designing Java APIs. It is a complement to and intended to be used together with the API Design Guidelines.

We also have some before-and-after code examples to show how this list can help you remember overlooked design requirements, spot mistakes, identify less-than-optimal design choices and opportunities for improvements.

Click the [explain] link next to a checklist item (where available) for details about the rationale, examples, design tradeoffs or other limitations of applicability.

This list uses the following conventions:

   (Do) verb...  - Indicates the required design
    Favor...     - Indicates the best of several design alternatives
    Consider...  - Indicates a possible design improvement
    Avoid...     - Indicates a design weakness
    Do not...    - Indicates a design mistake

1. Package Design Checklist

1.1. General

  • 1.1.1. Favor placing API and implementation into separate packages [explain]
  • 1.1.2. Favor placing APIs into high-level packages and implementation into lower-level packages [explain]
  • 1.1.3. Consider breaking up large APIs into several packages [explain]
  • 1.1.4. Consider putting API and implementation packages into separate Java archives [explain]
  • 1.1.5. Avoid (minimize) internal dependencies on implementation classes in APIs [explain]
  • 1.1.6. Avoid unnecessary API fragmentation [explain]
  • 1.1.7. Do not place public implementation classes in the API package [explain]
  • 1.1.8. Do not create dependencies between callers and implementation classes [explain]
  • 1.1.9. Do not place unrelated APIs into the same package [explain]
  • 1.1.10. Do not place API and SPI into the same package [explain]
  • 1.1.11. Do not move or rename the package of an already released public API [explain]

1.2. Naming

  • 1.2.1. Start package names with the company’s official root namespace [explain]
  • 1.2.2. Use a stable product or product family name at the second level of the package name [explain]
  • 1.2.3. Use the name of the API as the final part of the package name [explain]
  • 1.2.4. Consider marking implementation-only packages by including “internal” in the package name [explain]
  • 1.2.5. Avoid composite names [explain]
  • 1.2.6. Avoid using the same name for both package and class inside the package [explain]
  • 1.2.7. Avoid using “api” in package names [explain]
  • 1.2.8. Do not use marketing, project, organizational unit or geographic location names [explain]
  • 1.2.9. Do not use uppercase characters in package names [explain]

1.3. Documentation

  • 1.3.1. Provide a package overview (package.html) for each package [explain]
  • 1.3.2. Follow standard Javadoc conventions [explain]
  • 1.3.3. Begin with a short, one sentence summary of the API [explain]
  • 1.3.4. Provide enough details to help deciding if and how to use the API [explain]
  • 1.3.5. Indicate the entry points (main classes or methods) of the API [explain]
  • 1.3.6. Include sample code for the main, most fundamental use case [explain]
  • 1.3.7. Include a link to the Developer Guide [explain]
  • 1.3.8. Include a link to the Cookbook [explain]
  • 1.3.9. Indicate related APIs
  • 1.3.10. Include the API version number [explain]
  • 1.3.11. Indicate deprecated API versions with the @deprecated tag
  • 1.3.12. Consider including a copyright notice [explain]
  • 1.3.13. Avoid lengthy package overviews
  • 1.3.14. Do not include implementation packages into published Javadoc

2. Type Design Checklist

2.1. General

  • 2.1.1. Ensure each type has a single, well-defined purpose
  • 2.1.2. Ensure types represent domain concepts, not design abstractions
  • 2.1.3. Limit the number of types [explain]
  • 2.1.4. Limit the size of types
  • 2.1.5. Follow consistent design patterns when designing related types
  • 2.1.6. Favor multiple (private) implementations over multiple public types
  • 2.1.7. Favor interfaces over class inheritance for expressing simple commonality in behavior [explain]
  • 2.1.8. Favor abstract classes over interfaces for decoupling API from implementation [explain]
  • 2.1.9. Favor enumeration types over constants
  • 2.1.10. Consider generic types [explain]
  • 2.1.11. Consider placing constraints on the generic type parameter
  • 2.1.12. Consider using interfaces to achieve similar effect to multiple inheritance
  • 2.1.13. Avoid designing for client extension
  • 2.1.14. Avoid deep inheritance hierarchies
  • 2.1.15. Do not use public nested types
  • 2.1.16. Do not declare public or protected fields
  • 2.1.17. Do not expose implementation inheritance to the client

2.2. Naming

  • 2.2.1. Use a noun or a noun phrase
  • 2.2.2. Use PascalCasing
  • 2.2.3. Capitalize only the first letter of acronyms [explain]
  • 2.2.4. Use accurate names for purpose of the type [explain]
  • 2.2.5. Reserve the shortest, most memorable name for the most frequently used type
  • 2.2.6. End the name of all exceptions with the word “Exception” [explain]
  • 2.2.7. Use singular nouns (Color, not Colors) for naming enumerated types [explain]
  • 2.2.8. Consider longer names [explain]
  • 2.2.9. Consider ending the name of derived class with the name of the base class
  • 2.2.10. Consider starting the name of an abstract class with the word “Abstract” [explain]
  • 2.2.11. Avoid abbreviations
  • 2.2.12. Avoid generic nouns
  • 2.2.13. Avoid synonyms
  • 2.2.14. Avoid type names used in related APIs
  • 2.2.15. Do not use names which differ in case alone
  • 2.2.16. Do not use prefixes
  • 2.2.17. Do not prefix interface names with “I”
  • 2.2.18. Do not use types names used in Java core packages [explain]

2.3. Classes

  • 2.3.1. Minimize implementation dependencies
  • 2.3.2. List public methods first [explain]
  • 2.3.3. Declare implementation methods private
  • 2.3.4. Define at least one public concrete class which extends a public abstract class [explain]
  • 2.3.5. Provide adequate defaults for the basic usage scenarios
  • 2.3.6. Design classes with strong invariants
  • 2.3.7. Group stateless, accessor and mutator methods together
  • 2.3.8. Keep the number of mutator methods at a minimum
  • 2.3.9. Consider providing a default no-parameter constructor [explain]
  • 2.3.10. Consider overriding equals(), hashCode() and toString() [explain]
  • 2.3.11. Consider implementing Comparable [explain]
  • 2.3.12. Consider implementing Serializable [explain]
  • 2.3.13. Consider making classes re-entrant
  • 2.3.14. Consider declaring the class as final [explain]
  • 2.3.15. Consider preventing class instantiation by not providing a public constructor [explain]
  • 2.3.16. Consider using custom types to enforce strong preconditions as class invariants
  • 2.3.17. Consider designing immutable classes [explain]
  • 2.3.18. Avoid static classes
  • 2.3.19. Avoid using Cloneable
  • 2.3.20. Do not add instance members to static classes
  • 2.3.21. Do not define public constructors for public abstract classes clients should not extend [explain]
  • 2.3.22. Do not require extensive initialization

2.4. Interfaces

  • 2.4.1. Provide at least one implementing class for every public interface
  • 2.4.2. Provide at least one consuming method for every public interface
  • 2.4.3. Do not add methods to a released public Java interface
  • 2.4.4. Do not use marker interfaces
  • 2.4.5. Do not use public interfaces as a container for constant fields

2.5. Enumerations

  • 2.5.1. Consider specifying a zero-value (“None” or “Unspecified”, etc) for enumeration types
  • 2.5.2. Avoid enumeration types with only one value
  • 2.5.3. Do not use enumeration types for open-ended sets of values
  • 2.5.4. Do not reserve enumeration values for future use
  • 2.5.5. Do not add new values to a released enumeration

2.6. Exceptions

  • 2.6.1. Ensure that custom exceptions are serialized correctly
  • 2.6.2. Consider defining a different exception class for each error type
  • 2.6.3. Consider providing extra information for programmatic access
  • 2.6.4. Avoid deep exception hierarchies
  • 2.6.5. Do not derive custom exceptions from other than Exception and RuntimeException
  • 2.6.6. Do not derive custom exceptions directly from Throwable
  • 2.6.7. Do not include sensitive information in error messages

2.7. Documentation

  • 2.7.1. Provide type overview for each type
  • 2.7.2. Follow standard Javadoc conventions
  • 2.7.3. Begin with a short, one sentence summary of the type
  • 2.7.4. Provide enough details to help deciding if and how to use the type
  • 2.7.5. Explain how to instantiate the type
  • 2.7.6. Provide code sample to illustrate the main use case for the type
  • 2.7.7. Include links to relevant sections in the Developer Guide
  • 2.7.8. Include links to relevant sections in the Cookbook
  • 2.7.9. Indicate related types
  • 2.7.10. Indicate deprecated types using the @deprecated tag
  • 2.7.11. Document class invariants
  • 2.7.12. Avoid lengthy type overviews
  • 2.7.13. Do not generate Javadoc for private fields and methods

3. Method Design Checklist

3.1. General

  • 3.1.1. Make sure each method does only one thing
  • 3.1.2. Ensure related methods are at the same level of granularity
  • 3.1.3. Ensure no boilerplate code is needed to combine method calls
  • 3.1.4. Make all method calls atomic
  • 3.1.5. Design protected methods with the same care as public methods
  • 3.1.6. Limit the number of mutator methods
  • 3.1.7. Design mutators with strong invariants
  • 3.1.8. Favor generic methods over a set of overloaded methods
  • 3.1.9. Consider generic methods
  • 3.1.10. Consider method pairs, where the effect of one is reversed by the other
  • 3.1.11. Avoid “helper” methods
  • 3.1.12. Avoid long-running methods
  • 3.1.13. Avoid forcing callers to write loops for basic scenarios
  • 3.1.14. Avoid “option” parameters to modify behavior
  • 3.1.15. Avoid non-reentrant methods
  • 3.1.16. Do not remove a released method
  • 3.1.17. Do not deprecate a released method without providing a replacement
  • 3.1.18. Do not change the signature of a released method
  • 3.1.19. Do not change the observable behavior of a released method
  • 3.1.20. Do not strengthen the precondition of an already released API method
  • 3.1.21. Do not weaken the postcondition of an already released API method
  • 3.1.22. Do not add new methods to released interfaces
  • 3.1.23. Do not add a new overload to a released API

3.2. Naming

  • 3.2.1. Begin names with powerful, expressive verbs
  • 3.2.2. Use camelCasing
  • 3.2.3. Reserve “get”, “set” and “is” for JavaBeans methods accessing local fields
  • 3.2.4. Use words familiar to callers
  • 3.2.5. Stay close to spoken English
  • 3.2.6. Avoid abbreviations
  • 3.2.7. Avoid generic verbs
  • 3.2.8. Avoid synonyms
  • 3.2.9. Do not use underscores
  • 3.2.10. Do not rely on parameter names or types to clarify the meaning of the method

3.3. Parameters

  • 3.3.1. Choose the most precise type for parameters
  • 3.3.2. Keep the meaning of the null parameter value consistent across related method calls
  • 3.3.3. Use consistent parameter names, types and ordering in related methods
  • 3.3.4. Place output parameters after the input parameters in the parameter list
  • 3.3.5. Provide overloaded methods with shorter parameter lists for frequently used default parameter values
  • 3.3.6. Use overloaded methods for operations with the same semantics on unrelated types
  • 3.3.7. Favor interfaces over concrete classes as parameters
  • 3.3.8. Favor collections over arrays as parameters and return values
  • 3.3.9. Favor generic collections over raw (untyped) collections
  • 3.3.10. Favor enumeration types over Boolean or integer types
  • 3.3.11. Favor putting single object parameters ahead of collection or array parameters
  • 3.3.12. Favor putting custom type parameters ahead of standard Java type parameters
  • 3.3.13. Favor putting object parameters ahead of value parameters
  • 3.3.14. Favor interfaces over concrete classes as return types
  • 3.3.15. Favor empty collections to null return values
  • 3.3.16. Favor returning values which are valid input for related methods
  • 3.3.17. Consider making defensive copies of mutable parameters
  • 3.3.18. Consider storing weak object references internally
  • 3.3.19. Avoid variable length parameter lists
  • 3.3.20. Avoid long parameter lists (more than 3)
  • 3.3.21. Avoid putting parameters of the same type next to each other
  • 3.3.22. Avoid out or in-out method parameters
  • 3.3.23. Avoid method overloading
  • 3.3.24. Avoid parameter types exposing implementation details
  • 3.3.25. Avoid Boolean parameters
  • 3.3.26. Avoid returning null
  • 3.3.27. Avoid return types defined in unrelated APIs, except core Java APIs
  • 3.3.28. Avoid returning references to mutable internal objects
  • 3.3.29. Do not use integer parameters for passing predefined constant values
  • 3.3.30. Do not reserve parameters for future use
  • 3.3.31. Do not change the parameter naming or ordering in overloaded methods

3.4. Error handling

  • 3.4.1. Throw exception only for exceptional circumstances
  • 3.4.2. Throw checked exceptions only for recoverable errors
  • 3.4.3. Throw runtime exceptions to signal API usage mistakes
  • 3.4.4. Throw exceptions at the appropriate level of abstraction
  • 3.4.5. Perform runtime precondition checks
  • 3.4.6. Throw NullPointerException to indicate a prohibited null parameter value
  • 3.4.7. Throw IllegalArgumentException to indicate an incorrect parameter value other than null
  • 3.4.8. Throw IllegalStateException to indicate a method call made in the wrong context
  • 3.4.9. Indicate in the error message which parameter violated which precondition
  • 3.4.10. Ensure failed method calls have no side effects
  • 3.4.11. Provide runtime checks for prohibited API calls made inside callback methods
  • 3.4.12. Favor standard Java exceptions over custom exceptions
  • 3.4.13. Favor query methods over exceptions for predictable error conditions

3.5. Overriding

  • 3.5.1. Use the @Override annotation
  • 3.5.2. Preserve or weaken preconditions
  • 3.5.3. Preserve or strengthen postconditions
  • 3.5.4. Preserve or strengthen the invariant
  • 3.5.5. Do not throw new types of runtime exceptions
  • 3.5.6. Do not change the type (stateless, accessor or mutator) of the method

3.6. Constructors

  • 3.6.1. Minimize the work done in constructors
  • 3.6.2. Set the value of all properties to reasonable defaults
  • 3.6.3. Use constructor parameters only as a shortcut for setting properties
  • 3.6.4. Validate constructor parameters
  • 3.6.5. Name constructor parameters the same as corresponding properties
  • 3.6.6. Follow the guidelines for method overloading when providing multiple constructors
  • 3.6.7. Favor constructors over static factory methods
  • 3.6.8. Consider a no parameter default constructor
  • 3.6.9. Consider a static factory method if you don’t always need a new instance
  • 3.6.10. Consider a static factory method if you need to decide the precise type of object at runtime
  • 3.6.11. Consider a static factory method if you need to access external resources
  • 3.6.12. Consider a builder when faced with many constructor parameters
  • 3.6.13. Consider private constructors to prevent direct class instantiation
  • 3.6.14. Avoid creating unnecessary objects
  • 3.6.15. Avoid finalizers
  • 3.6.16. Do not throw exceptions from default (no-parameter) constructors
  • 3.6.17. Do not add a constructor with parameters to a class released without explicit constructors

3.7. Setters and getters

  • 3.7.1. Start the name of methods returning non-Boolean properties with “get”
  • 3.7.2. Start the name of methods returning Boolean properties with “is”, “can” or similar
  • 3.7.3. Start the name of methods updating local properties with “set”
  • 3.7.4. Validate the parameter of setter methods
  • 3.7.5. Minimize work done in getters and setters
  • 3.7.6. Consider returning immutable collections from a getter
  • 3.7.7. Consider implementing a collection interface instead of a public propertie of a collection type
  • 3.7.8. Consider read-only properties
  • 3.7.9. Consider making a defensive copy when setting properties of mutable types
  • 3.7.10. Consider making a defensive copy when returning properties of mutable type
  • 3.7.11. Avoid returning arrays from getters
  • 3.7.12. Avoid validations which cannot be done with local knowledge
  • 3.7.13. Do not throw exceptions from a getter
  • 3.7.14. Do not design set-only properties (with public setter no public getter)
  • 3.7.15. Do not rely on the order properties are set

3.8. Callbacks

  • 3.8.1. Design with the strongest possible precondition
  • 3.8.2. Design with the weakest possible postcondition
  • 3.8.3. Consider passing a reference to the object initiating the callback as the first parameter of the callback method
  • 3.8.4. Avoid callbacks with return values

3.9. Documentation

  • 3.9.1. Provide Javadoc comments for each method
  • 3.9.2. Follow standard Javadoc conventions
  • 3.9.3. Begin with a short, one sentence summary of the method
  • 3.9.4. Indicate related methods
  • 3.9.5. Indicate deprecated methods using the @deprecated tag
  • 3.9.6. Indicate a replacement for any deprecated methods
  • 3.9.7. Avoid lengthy comments
  • 3.9.8. Document common behavioral patterns
  • 3.9.9. Document the precise meaning of a null parameter value (if permitted)
  • 3.9.10. Document the type of the method (stateless, accessor or mutator)
  • 3.9.11. Document method preconditions
  • 3.9.12. Document the performance characteristics of the algorithm implemented
  • 3.9.13. Document remote method calls
  • 3.9.14. Document methods accessing out-of-process resources
  • 3.9.15. Document which API calls are permitted inside callback methods
  • 3.9.16. Consider unit tests for illustrating the behavior of the method

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

About Ferenc Mihaly
Senior Software Architect at OpenText Corporation

6 Responses to Java API Design Checklist

  1. Daniel says:

    Pure gold, Ferenc.

    Even though I live in the C++ world as opposed to Java, 99% of this is directly applicable.

    Good to see a new post, I’ve been enjoying this series very much.

  2. lukaseder says:

    This really looks like a nice list of do’s and don’ts. I may have to revise my own library a little bit, here and there! Thanks for this nice contribution!

  3. Pingback: API Design for C++

  4. Stan says:

    Thank you Ferenc, really useful! In the next revision you could maybe mention also the default visibility. All the best!

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