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Explaining Explanation: An Empirical Study on Explanation in Code Reviews

Ratnadira WidyasariTing ZhangAbir BouraffaDavid Lo
Nov 2023
Code review is an important process for quality assurance in software development. For an effective code review, the reviewers must explain their feedback to enable the authors of the code change to act on them. However, the explanation needs may differ among developers, who may require different types of explanations. It is therefore crucial to understand what kind of explanations reviewers usually use in code reviews. To the best of our knowledge, no study published to date has analyzed the types of explanations used in code review. In this study, we present the first analysis of explanations in useful code reviews. We extracted a set of code reviews based on their usefulness and labeled them based on whether they contained an explanation, a solution, or both a proposed solution and an explanation thereof. Based on our analysis, we found that a significant portion of the code review comments (46%) only include solutions without providing an explanation. We further investigated the remaining 54% of code review comments containing an explanation and conducted an open card sorting to categorize the reviewers' explanations. We distilled seven distinct categories of explanations based on the expression forms developers used. Then, we utilize large language models, specifically ChatGPT, to assist developers in getting a code review explanation that suits their preferences. Specifically, we created prompts to transform a code review explanation into a specific type of explanation. Our evaluation results show that ChatGPT correctly generated the specified type of explanation in 88/90 cases and that 89/90 of the cases have the correct explanation. Overall, our study provides insights into the types of explanations that developers use in code review and showcases how ChatGPT can be leveraged during the code review process to generate a specific type of explanation.
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