Open Letter to Visual Studio Extension Developers

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Dear Visual Studio Extension Developers:

(This includes folks who create products that have “value-add” features that install into Visual Studio, extensions done through classic or new mechanisms, and/or anyone who has something that otherwise “bolts on” to VS to enhance the development experience.)

I have a lot of different products, add-ins, and extensions installed in Visual Studio. Most of them behave reasonably, but I’ve had some recent bad luck with a couple that have caused… frustration. This is to ask you to help me.

Help me enjoy your product. Help me not be frustrated. Help me be that guy who blogs about how double-plus-awesome you are. In order to do that, I have some ideas for you:

  • Don’t require administrative privileges to run. I don’t develop as an administrator. You shouldn’t either. Even if you do, for whatever reason, your QA process should test the extension as a non-admin. I don’t want to get all energized to use the stuff just to fire up VS and get an inexplicable exception message that I have to trace back to your extension.
  • Remember the state in which I left your extension. If you have some sort of window or menu bar addition, make sure if I close the window, move it, dock it, or otherwise use the standard window/menu customization options that I won’t totally lose that customization when I close VS and restart it later.
  • Test your upgrade path. If I install your extension, change some settings, and then later upgrade, I don’t want to lose my settings. Also, if your product is offered as a standalone installer and through the VS Extension Gallery, make sure the two mechanisms understand each other so I don’t manually install the latest version just to be prompted to “upgrade” by the VS Extension Gallery.
  • Don’t write files to my source tree. In my ideal world, I don’t want you writing anything to my source tree because in most cases are those files are going to be per-user settings (right?) which I don’t want to accidentally check into my repository. I also don’t want to have to chase everyone down that’s using your extension and make sure they don’t check them into their branches/clones/etc.
  • If you absolutely must write files to the source tree, use a file extension I’m already ignoring. Most source code control projects for .NET have *.suo and *.user ignored. Feel free to use those extensions so for your per-solution or per-project files so it’s seamless.
  • Don’t add a top-level menu to Visual Studio. You don’t need to show up at the same level as File, Edit, View, etc. I have no less than 19 of these top-level menus right now, counting the stock items. If I size the VS window less than 1200 pixels wide, the menu starts wrapping. That’s ridiculous, especially when some of these just open up settings menus. There’s a “Tools” menu. Use it. There is a standard VS options dialog. Hook into it. Putting yourself right at the top is like trying to install a desktop shortcut every time. (I figured out how to use the Start menu since Windows 95 came out. I don’t need a desktop icon.) Note: The exception to this is if your plugin actually does have a huge ton of things that are menu-driven. Chances are, though, your plugin doesn’t fall into this territory. You might think it does, but it probably doesn’t.
  • Have options to enable/disable sets of functionality. If your plugin does more than one logical “thing” (e.g., it does syntax highlighting and enhances the Solution Explorer) you need to offer me options to enable or disable the individual features. You may have five things that your plugin does but only four of them are things I’m interested in, while the last one is just annoying. Let me disable that annoying one. Don’t force me to choose between uninstalling your plugin or putting up with annoying behavior.

DevExpressis actually a good example of what to do in pretty much every case here. The CodeRush/Refactor set of VS extensions are fantastic. They do add a top-level menu to VS, but since there is a ton of functionality (tool windows, etc.) you’d want to get through menus and it’d be cumbersome nested under the Tools menu, it’s justified. They cover every other item I listed here like a champ and are, in fact, double-plus-awesome.

Anyway, thanks, VS Extension Developers, for hearing me out.

Sincerely, Me