React Design Patterns and Best Practices

4.3 (6 reviews total)
By Michele Bertoli
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  1. Everything You Should Know About React

About this book

Taking a complete journey through the most valuable design patterns in React, this book demonstrates how to apply design patterns and best practices in real-life situations, whether that's for new or already existing projects. It will help you to make your applications more flexible, perform better, and easier to maintain – giving your workflow a huge boost when it comes to speed without reducing quality. 

We'll begin by understanding the internals of React before gradually moving on to writing clean and maintainable code. We'll build components that are reusable across the application, structure applications, and create forms that actually work.

Then we'll style React components and optimize them to make applications faster and more responsive. Finally, we'll write tests effectively and you'll learn how to contribute to React and its ecosystem.

By the end of the book, you'll be saved from a lot of trial and error and developmental headaches, and you will be on the road to becoming a React expert.

Publication date:
January 2017
Publisher
Packt
Pages
318
ISBN
9781786464538

 

Chapter 1. Everything You Should Know About React

Hello, readers!

This book assumes that you already know what React is and what problems it solves for you. You may have written a small/medium application with React and you want to improve your skills and answer all your open questions.

You should know that React is maintained by developers at Facebook and hundreds of contributors within the JavaScript community.

React is one of the most popular libraries for creating user interfaces and it is well-known to be fast, thanks to its smart way of touching the DOM.

It comes with JSX, a new syntax to write markup in JavaScript, which requires you to change your mind regarding the separation of concerns. It has many cool features, such as the server-side rendering that gives you the power to write Universal applications.

To follow this book, you will need to know how to use the terminal to install and run npm packages in your Node.js environment.

All the examples are written in ES2015, which you should be able to read and understand.

In this first chapter, we will go through some basics concepts which are important to master to use React effectively, but are non-trivial to figure out for beginners:

  • The difference between imperative and declarative programming

  • React components and their instances, and how React uses elements to control the UI flow

  • How React changes the way we build web applications, enforcing a different new concept of separation of concerns, and the reasons behind its unpopular design choice

  • Why people feel the JavaScript Fatigue and what you can do to avoid the most common errors developers make when approaching the React ecosystem

 

Declarative programming


Reading the React documentation or blog posts about React, you have surely come across the term declarative.

In fact, one of the reasons why React is so powerful is because it enforces a declarative programming paradigm.

Consequently, to master React, it is important to understand what declarative programming means and what the main differences between imperative and declarative programming are.

The easiest way to approach the problem is to think about imperative programming as a way of describing how things work, and declarative programming as a way of describing what you want to achieve.

A real-life parallel in the imperative world would be entering a bar for a beer, and giving the following instructions to the bartender:

  • Take a glass from the shelf

  • Put the glass in front of the draft

  • Pull down the handle until the glass is full

  • Pass me the glass

In the declarative world, instead, you would just say: "Beer, please."

The declarative approach of asking for a beer assumes that the bartender knows how to serve one, and that is an important aspect of the way declarative programming works.

Let's move into a JavaScript example, writing a simple function that, given an array of uppercase strings, returns an array with the same strings in lowercase:

toLowerCase(['FOO', 'BAR']) // ['foo', 'bar'] 

An imperative function to solve the problem would be implemented as follows:

const toLowerCase = input => { 
  const output = [] 
  for (let i = 0; i < input.length; i++) { 
    output.push(input[i].toLowerCase()) 
  } 
  return output 
} 

First of all, an empty array to contain the result gets created. Then, the function loops through all the elements of the input array and pushes the lowercase values into the empty array. Finally, the output array gets returned.

A declarative solution would be as follows:

const toLowerCase = input => input.map(
  value => value.toLowerCase()
) 

The items of the input array are passed to a map function, which returns a new array containing the lowercase values.

There are some important differences to note: the former example is less elegant and it requires more effort to be understood. The latter is terser and easier to read, which makes a huge difference in big code bases, where maintainability is crucial.

Another aspect worth mentioning is that in the declarative example, there is no need to use variables nor to keep their values updated during the execution. Declarative programming, in fact, tends to avoid creating and mutating a state.

As a final example, let's see what it means for React to be declarative.

The problem we will try to solve is a common task in web development: showing a map with a marker.

The JavaScript implementation (using the Google Maps SDK) is as follows:

const map = new google.maps.Map(document.getElementById('map'), { 
  zoom: 4, 
  center: myLatLng, 
}) 
 
const marker = new google.maps.Marker({ 
  position: myLatLng, 
  title: 'Hello World!', 
}) 
 
marker.setMap(map) 

It is clearly imperative, because all the instructions needed to create the map, and create the marker and attach it to the map are described inside the code, one after the other.

A React component to show a map on a page would look like this instead:

<Gmaps zoom={4} center={myLatLng}> 
  <Marker position={myLatLng} Hello world! /> 
</Gmaps> 

In declarative programming, developers only describe what they want to achieve and there's no need to list all the steps to make it work.

The fact that React offers a declarative approach makes it easy to use, and consequently, the resulting code is simple, which often leads to fewer bugs and more maintainability.

 

React elements


This book assumes that you are familiar with components and their instances, but there is another object you should know if you want to use React effectively: the Element.

Whenever you call createClass, extend Component, or simply declare a stateless function, you are creating a component. React manages all the instances of your components at runtime, and there can be more than one instance of the same component in memory at a given point in time.

As mentioned previously, React follows a declarative paradigm, and there's no need to tell it how to interact with the DOM; you just declare what you want to see on the screen and React does the job for you.

As you might have already experienced, most other UI libraries work in the opposite way: they leave the responsibility of keeping the interface updated to the developer, who has to manage the creation and destruction of the DOM elements manually.

To control the UI flow, React uses a particular type of object, called element, which describes what has to be shown on the screen. These immutable objects are much simpler compared to the components and their instances, and contain only the information that is strictly needed to represent the interface.

The following is an example of an element:

{ 
  type: Title, 
  props: { 
    color: 'red', 
    children: 'Hello, Title!' 
  } 
} 

Elements have a type, which is the most important attribute, and some properties. There is also a special property, called children, which is optional and represents the direct descendant of the element.

The type is important because it tells React how to deal with the element itself. In fact, if the type is a string, the element represents a DOM node, while if the type is a function, the element is a component.

DOM elements and components can be nested with each other, to represent the render tree:

{ 
  type: Title, 
  props: { 
    color: 'red', 
    children: { 
      type: 'h1', 
      props: { 
        children: 'Hello, H1!' 
      } 
    } 
  } 
} 

When the type of the element is a function, React calls it, passing the props to get back the underlying elements. It keeps on performing the same operation recursively on the result until it gets a tree of DOM nodes, which React can render on the screen. This process is called reconciliation, and it is used by both React DOM and React Native to create the user interfaces of their respective platforms.

 

Unlearning everything


Using React for the first time usually requires an open mind because it brings a new way of designing web and mobile applications. In fact, React tries to innovate the way we build user interfaces following a path that breaks most of the well-known best practices.

In the last two decades, we learned that the separation of concerns is important, and we used to think about it in terms of separating the logic from the templates. Our goal has always been to write the JavaScript and the HTML in different files.

Various templating solutions have been created to help developers achieve this.

The problem is that most of the time, that kind of separation is just an illusion and the truth is that the JavaScript and the HTML are tightly coupled, no matter where they live.

Let's see an example of a template:

{{#items}} 
  {{#first}} 
    <li><strong>{{name}}</strong></li> 
  {{/first}} 
  {{#link}} 
    <li><a href="{{url}}">{{name}}</a></li> 
  {{/link}} 
{{/items}} 

The preceding snippet is taken from the website of Mustache, one of the most popular templating systems.

The first row tells Mustache to loop through a collection of items. Inside the loop, there is some conditional logic to check if the #first and the #link properties exist, and depending on their values, a different piece of HTML is rendered. Variables are wrapped into curly braces.

If your application has only to display some variables, a templating library could represent a good solution, but when it comes to starting to work with complex data structures, things change.

In fact, templating systems and their Domain-Specific Language (DSL) offer a subset of features, and they try to provide the functionalities of a real programming language without reaching the same level of completeness.

As shown in the example, templates highly depend on the models they receive from the logic layer to display the information.

On the other hand, JavaScript interacts with the DOM elements rendered by the templates to update the UI, even if they are loaded from separate files.

The same problem applies to styles: they are defined in a different file, but they are referenced in the templates and the CSS selectors follow the structure of the markup, so it is almost impossible to change one without breaking the other, which is the definition of coupling.

That is why the classic separation of concerns ended up being more a separation of technologies, which is of course not a bad thing, but it does not solve any real problems.

React tries to move a step forward by putting the templates where they belong: next to the logic. The reason it does that is because React suggests you organize your applications by composing small bricks called components.

The framework should not tell you how to separate the concerns, because every application has its own, and only the developers should decide how to limit the boundaries of their apps.

The component-based approach drastically changes the way we write web applications, which is why the classic concept of separation of concerns is gradually being taken over by a much more modern structure.

The paradigm enforced by React is not new, and it was not invented by its creators, but React has contributed to making the concept mainstream and, most importantly, popularized it in such a way that is easier to understand for developers with different levels of expertise.

This is how the render method of a React component looks:

render() { 
  return ( 
    <button style={{ color: 'red' }} onClick={this.handleClick}> 
      Click me! 
    </button> 
  ) 
} 

We all agree that it looks a bit weird in the beginning, but it is just because we are not used to that kind of syntax.

As soon as we learn it and we realize how powerful it is, we understand its potential.

Using JavaScript for both logic and templating not only helps us separate our concerns in a better way, but it also gives us more power and more expressivity, which is what we need to build complex user interfaces.

That is why, even if the idea of mixing JavaScript and HTML sounds weird in the beginning, it is important to give React five minutes.

The best way to get started with a new technology is to try it in a small side project and see how it goes. In general, the right approach is to always be ready to unlearn everything and change your mindset if the long-term benefits are worth it.

There is another concept, which is pretty controversial and hard to accept, and which the engineers behind React are trying to push to the community: moving the styling logic inside the component, too.

The end goal is to encapsulate every single technology used to create our components and separate the concerns according to their domain and functionalities.

Here is an example of a style object taken from the React documentation:

var divStyle = { 
  color: 'white', 
  backgroundImage: 'url(' + imgUrl + ')', 
  WebkitTransition: 'all', // note the capital 'W' here 
  msTransition: 'all' // 'ms' is the only lowercase vendor prefix 
}; 
 
ReactDOM.render(
 <div style={divStyle}>Hello World!</div>, 
 mountNode
); 

This set of solutions, where developers use JavaScript to write their styles, is known as #CSSinJS, and we will talk about it extensively in Chapter 7 , Make Your Components Look Beautiful.

 

Common misconceptions


There is a common opinion that React is a huge set of technologies and tools, and if you want to use it, you are forced to deal with package managers, transpilers, module bundlers, and an infinite list of different libraries.

This idea is so widespread and shared among people that it has been clearly defined, and has been given the name JavaScript Fatigue.

It is not hard to understand the reasons behind this. In fact, all the repositories and libraries in the React ecosystem are made using the shiny new technologies, the latest version of JavaScript, and the most advanced techniques and paradigms.

Moreover, there is a massive number of React boilerplates on GitHub, each one with tens of dependencies to offer solutions for any problems.

It is very easy to think that all these tools are required to start using React, but this is far from the truth.

Despite this common way of thinking, React is a pretty tiny library, and it can be used inside any page (or even inside a JSFiddle) in the same way everyone used to use jQuery or Backbone: just by including the script on the page before the closing body element.

To be fair, there are two scripts because React is split into two packages: react, which implements the core features of the library, and react-dom, which contains all the browser-related features. The reason behind that is because the core package is used to support different targets, such as React DOM in browsers and React Native on mobile devices.

Running a React application inside a single HTML page does not require any package manager or complex operation. You can just download the distribution bundle and host it yourself (or use unpkg.com), and you are ready to get started with React and its features in a few minutes.

Here are the URLs to be included in the HTML to start using React:

If we include the core React library only, we cannot use JSX because it is not a standard language supported by the browser; but, the whole point is to start with the bare minimum set of features and add more functionalities as soon as they are needed.

For a simple UI, we could just use createElement and, only when we start building something more complex, we can include a transpiler to enable JSX and convert it into JavaScript.

As soon as the app grows a bit more, we may need a router to handle different pages and views, and we can include that as well.

At some point, we may want to load data from some API endpoints, and if the application keeps growing, we will reach the point where we need some external dependencies to abstract complex operations. Only in that very moment, should we introduce a package manager.

Then the time will come to split our application into separate modules and organize our files in the right way. At that point, we should start thinking about using a module bundler.

Following this very simple approach, there's no fatigue.

Starting with a boilerplate that has one hundred dependencies and tens of npm packages of which we know nothing is the best way to get lost.

It is important to note that every programming-related job (and front end engineering in particular) requires continuous learning. It is the nature of the Web to evolve at a very fast pace and change according to the needs of both users and developers. This is the way our environment has worked since the beginning and what makes it very exciting.

As we gain experience working on the Web, we learn that we cannot master everything and we should find the right way to keep ourselves updated to avoid the fatigue. We become able to follow all the new trends without jumping into the new libraries for the sake of it, unless we have time for a side project.

It is astonishing how, in the JavaScript world, as soon as a specification is announced or drafted, someone in the community implements it as a transpiler plugin or a polyfill, letting everyone else play with it while the browser vendors agree and start supporting it.

This is something that makes JavaScript and the browser a completely different environment compared to any other language or platform.

The downside of it is that things change very quickly, but it is just a matter of finding the right balance between betting on new technologies versus staying safe.

In any case, Facebook developers care a lot about the DX (developer experience), and they listen carefully to the community. So, even if it is not true that to use React we are required to learn hundreds of different tools, they realized that people were feeling the fatigue and they released a CLI tool that makes it incredibly easy to scaffold and run a real React application.

The only requirement is to use a node.js/npm environment and install the CLI tool globally:

npm install -g create-react-app

When the executable is installed, we can use it to create our application passing a folder name:

create-react-app hello-world

Finally, we move into the folder of our application with cd hello-world and we just run:

npm start

Magically, our application is running with a single dependency, but with all the features needed to build a complete React application using the most advanced techniques. The following screenshot shows the default page of an application created with create-react-app:

We will use this tool throughout the book to run the examples for each chapter which are also available on GitHub at the following address:

https://github.com/MicheleBertoli/react-design-patterns-and-best-practices

 

Summary


In this first chapter, we have learned some basic concepts that are very important for following the rest of the book, and which are crucial to working with React daily.

We now know how to write declarative code and we have a clear understanding of the difference between the components we create and the elements React uses to display their instances on the screen.

We learned the reasons behind the choice of co-locating logic and templates together, and why that unpopular decision has been a big win for React.

We went through the reasons why it is common to feel fatigue in the JavaScript ecosystem, but we have also seen how to avoid those problems by following an iterative approach.

Finally, we have seen what the new create-react-app CLI is, and we are now ready to start writing some real code.

About the Author

  • Michele Bertoli

    Michele Bertoli is a frontend engineer with a passion for beautiful UIs. Born in Italy, he moved to London with his family to look for new and exciting job opportunities. He has a degree in Computer Science and loves clean and well-tested code. Currently, he is working with React.js, crafting modern JavaScript applications. He is a big fan of open-source and is always trying to learn something new.

    Browse publications by this author

Latest Reviews

(6 reviews total)
Very good. I like it. Great.
Hyvä kirja reactin perusjutuista, joita voi esitellä yksittäisillä dummy-komponenteilla. Ei tarjoa esimerkkejä tai vikkejä todellisen reacilla tehdyn järjestelmän vaatimien osien toteuttamiseen (esim. reititys, viestit).
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