"Automated debugging considered harmful" considered harmful: A user study revisiting the usefulness of spectra-based fault localization techniques with professionals using real bugs from large systems

Publication Type

Conference Proceeding Article

Publication Date



Due to the complexity of software systems, bugs are inevitable. Software debugging is tedious and time consuming. To help developers perform this crucial task, a number of spectra-based fault localization techniques have been proposed. In general, spectra-based fault localization helps developers to find the location of a bug given its symptoms (e.g., program failures). A previous study by Parnin and Orso however implies that several assumptions made by existing work on spectra-based fault localization do not hold in practice, which hinders the practical usage of these tools. Moreover, a recent study by Xie et al. claims that spectra-based fault localization can potentially "weaken programmers' abilities in fault detection".Unfortunately, these studies are performed either using only 2 bugs from small systems (Parnin and Orso's study) or synthetic bugs injected into toy programs (Xie et al.'s study), only involve students, and use dated spectra-based fault localization tools. Thus, the question whether spectra-based fault localization techniques can help professionals to improve their debugging efficiency in a reasonably large project is still insufficiently answered. In this paper, we perform a more realistic investigation of how professionals can use and benefit from spectra-based fault localization techniques. We perform a user study of spectra-based fault localization with a total of 16 real bugs from 4 reasonably large open-source projects, with 36 professionals, amounting to 80 recorded debugging hours. The 36 professionals are divided into 3 groups, i.e., those that use an accurate fault localization tool, use a mediocre fault localization tool, and do not use any fault localization tool. Our study finds that both the accurate and mediocre spectra-based fault localization tools can help professionals to save their debugging time, and the improvements are statistically significant and substantial. We also discuss implications of our findings to future directions of spectra-based fault localization.


Computer bugs, Debugging, Open source software, Java, Outsourcing, Software maintenance, User Study, Automated Debugging, Spectra-Based Fault Localization, Empirical Study


Software Engineering

Research Areas

Software and Cyber-Physical Systems


Proceedings of the 32nd IEEE International Conference on Software Maintenance and Evolution (ICSME 2016): Raleigh, NC, 2-7 October 2016







City or Country

Piscataway, NJ

Additional URL


This document is currently not available here.