In object oriented (OO) programming, class inheritance is the process of deriving new classes from existing classes. It’s a technique that was developed, at least in part, to enable the better reuse of existing code, but it can have its downsides too. It can lead to complications in the design of software, and headaches with code management. However, inheritance is a requisite of OO programming, and most problems with using it come from a lack of preparation at the analysis and design stage. Assuming that you’re familiar with the OO class, we’ll now take a look at this powerful programming method that, when properly employed, helps enable the production of secure, maintainable and reusable software.

The basic principle of class inheritance is pretty straight-forward. When using a language that supports inheritance, the idea is to start with a base class that has minimal functionality. This base class is then used as a starting point to build new classes that require extended or slightly different functionality. The base class is sometimes called the super class, and the classes built from it are called derived classes. In most OO languages a derived class can have more than one base class, and this is called multiple inheritance. If a derived class needs to modify methods of a base class, it can do this using the OO practice of polymorphism.

An object oriented design for a large project may have many layers of inheritance. The structure of inheritance is referred to (interchangeably) as the class hierarchy, the class tree, or the class lattice. It requires a lot of thought to put together a good class hierarchy, as this is the area of OO design that causes the most complications, for some of the following reasons.

  • With large class trees the encapsulation of code can begin to break down. A class low down the tree may have code spread through several classes going back deep into the tree structure.
  • Forced use of inheritance for its own sake can lead to badly constructed inheritance trees and overuse of polymorphism. This results in bulky objects with a lot of redundancy, inefficient code and designs that are hard to understand.
  • Programmers will find it difficult to be completely aware of all functionality provided in a deep class inheritance tree. Over time, the danger is that functionality will be duplicated, so periodic audits of the class structure, and possibly reorganisations, may be required.

Clearly, then, when using OO programming and inheritance, getting the design of the project right is paramount. Work on a thorough system analysis is essential, because late modifications to a class hierarchy can be very time consuming.

Next we’ll take a look at an example of class hierarchy design. We’ll be designing a maze game, creating an OO design, but we’re not going to select a programming language at this stage. We’ll see how we can analyse the problem from an OO perspective, and produce a workable OO design solution that can be translated into implementation code.

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