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Simplifying Designs with Parameter Objects

Recently, while reading the HTML5 Doctor interview with Ian Hickson, when asked what some of his regrets have been over the years, the one he mentions, rather comically so as being his “favorite mistake”, also happened to be the one which stood out to me most; that is, his disappointment with pushState; specifically, the fact that of the three arguments accepted, the second argument is now ignored.

I can empathize with his (Hixie’s) frustration here; not simply because he is one of the most influential figures on the web – particularly for his successful work surrounding CSS, HTML5, and his responsibilities at the WHATWG in general – but rather, it is quite understandable how such a seemingly insignificant design shortcoming would bother such an obviously talented individual, especially considering the fact that pushState's parameters simply could not be changed due to the feature being used prior to completion. Indeed, the Web Platform poses some very unique and challenging constraints under which one must design.

While the ignored pushState argument is a rather trivial issue, I found it to be of particular interest as I often employ Parameter Objects to avoid similar design issues.

Parameter Objects

The term “Parameter Object” is one I use rather loosely to describe any object that simply serves as a wrapper from which all arguments are provided to a function. In the context of JavaScript, object literals serve quite well in this capacity, even for simpler cases where a function would otherwise require only a few arguments of the same type.

Parameter Objects are quite similar to that of an “Options Argument” – a pattern commonly implemented by many JavaScript libraries to simplify providing optional arguments to a function; however, I tend to use the term Parameter Objects more broadly to describe a single object parameter from which all arguments are provided to a function, optional arguments included. The two terms are often used interchangeably to describe the same pattern. However, I specifically use the term Options Argument to describe a single object which is reserved exclusively for providing optional arguments only, and is always defined as the last parameter of a function, proceeding all required arguments.

Benefits

Parameter Objects can prove beneficial in that they afford developers the ability to defer having to make any final design decisions with regard to what particular inputs are accepted by a function; thus, allowing an API to evolve gracefully over time.

For instance, using a Parameter Object, one can circumvent the general approach of implementing functions which define a fixed, specific order of parameters. As a result, should it be determined that any one particular parameter is no longer needed, API designers need not be concerned with requiring calling code to be refactored in order to allow for the removal of the parameter. Likewise, should any additional parameters need to be added, they can simply be defined as additional properties of the Parameter Object, irrespective of any particular ordering of previous parameters defined by the function.

As an example, consider a theoretical rotation function which defines five parameters:

Using a Parameter Object, we can refactor the above function to the following:

Should we wish to remove a parameter from the function, doing so simply requires making the appropriate changes at the API level without changing the actual signature of the function (assuming of course, there are no specific expectations already being made by calling code regarding the argument to be removed). Likewise, should additional parameters need to be added, such as a completion callback, etc., doing so, again, only requires making the appropriate API changes, and would not impact current calling code.

Additionally, taking these potential changes as an example, we can also see that with Parameter Objects, implementation specifics can be delegated to the API itself, rather than client code insofar that the provided arguments can be used to determine the actual behavior of the function. In this respect, Parameter Objects can also double as an Options Argument. For example, should the arguments required to perform a 3D rotation be omitted from the Parameter Object, the function can default to a 2D rotation based on the provided arguments, etc.

Convenience

Parameter Objects are rather convenient in terms of there being less mental overhead required than that of a function which requires ordered arguments; this is especially true for cases where a function defines numerous parameters, or successive parameters of the same type.

Since code is generally read much more frequently than it is written, it can be easier to understand what is being passed to a function when reading explicit property names of an object, in which each property name maps to a parameter name, and each property value maps to parameter argument. This can aid in readability where it would otherwise require reading the rather ambiguous arguments passed to a function. For example:

With Parameter Objects it becomes more apparent as to which arguments correspond to each specific parameter:

As mentioned, if a function accepts multiple arguments of the same type, the likelihood that users of the API may accidentally pass them in an incorrect order increases. This can result in errors that are likely to fail silently, possibly leading to the application (or a portion thereof) becoming in an unpredictable state. With Parameter Objects, such unintentional errors are less likely to occur.

Considerations

While Parameter Objects allow for implementing flexible parameter definitions, the arguments for which being provided by a single object, they are obviously not intended as a replacement for normal function parameters in that should a function need only require a few arguments, and the function’s parameters are unlikely to change, then using a Parameter Object in place of normal function parameters is not recommended. Also, perhaps one could make the argument that creating an additional object to store parameter/argument mappings where normal arguments would suffice adds additional or unnecessary overhead; however, considering how marginal the additional footprint would be, this point is rather moot as the benefits outweigh the cost.

A Look at pushState’s Parameters

Consider the parameters defined by pushState:

  1. data: Object
  2. title: String
  3. url: String

The second parameter, title, is the parameter of interest here as it is no longer used. Thus, calling push state requires passing either null or an empty String (recommended) as the second argument (i.e. title) before one can pass the third argument, url. For example:

Using a Parameter Object, pushState could have been, theoretically, implemented such that only a single argument was required:

  1. params: Object
    • data: Object
    • title: String
    • url: String

Thus, the ignored title argument could be safely removed from current calling code:

And simply ignored in previously implemented calls:

As can be seen, the difference between the two is quite simple: the specification for pushState accepts three arguments, whereas the theoretical Parameter Object implementation accepts a single object as an argument, which in turn provides the original arguments.

Concluding Thoughts

I certainly do not assume to understand the details surrounding pushState in enough detail to assert that the use of a Parameters Object would have addressed the issue. Thus, while this article may reference pushState as a basic example to illustrate how the use of a Parameter Object may have proved beneficial, it is really intended to highlight the value of using Parameter Objects from a general design perspective, by describing common use-cases in which they can prove useful. As such, Parameter Objects provide a valuable pattern worth considering when a function requires flexibility.

HTML5 Document Outliner

Recently, while preparing a training session on HTML5 Semantic and Structural Elements, I was rather intent on conveying the importance of an application’s overall markup and structure, while also expressing the importance of not being overly concerned with the absolute technical “correctness” of each and every element used.

With this in mind, providing a general overview of HTML5 sectioning content, and HTML5 Document Outlines, seemed appropriate points to emphasize.

Before doing so, I was looking to utilize a simple utility to provide a means of visualizing an HTML5 Document Outline, and the very useful Chrome Extension, HTML5 Outliner, proved to be an ideal tool for the task.

In particular, the HTML5 Outliner is quite helpful in validating the overall structure of single page web applications, whereby the constructed page is based on multiple disparate client-side templates being rendered at runtime; in which case it can be rather useful to have a holistic view of an application’s structure.

And so, if you are building modern client-side web applications, and using Chrome, if you haven’t done so already, I certainly recommend installing the HTML5 Document Outline for quickly viewing an application’s overall structure.

Managing Client-side Templates with RequireJS

When developing single page web applications, patterns of structure, organization and reuse become ever more important. This especially holds true when there is a need to maintain mulitiple web applications, each of which targeting a specific form factor, while also sharing many of the same underlying core APIs.

In the context of client-side templating, such patterns begin to emerge, quite naturally so, when leveraging RequireJS modules and the RequireJS text plugin.

Template Modules

One specific pattern I have found myself implementing is that of a single Templates Module which provides a centralized location from which all compiled templates within an application can be referenced. A rather simple pattern, Template Modules are only concerned with loading, compiling and providing a public API to access compiled templates; that is, a Templates Module simply requires all external templates, and provides named methods for retrieving the compiled template functions of each.

A basic implementation of a Templates module is as follows (while Handlebars may be used in this example, any template engine would suffice):

The main benefit of implementing a Templates Module is reuse, as different modules can use the same templates without a need for redundantly requiring and compiling the templates themselves. Additionally, Template Modules provide a convenient means of abstracting away the underlying template engine from client code, thus reducing the amount of refactoring needed should the template engine itself ever need to change.

When using the RequireJS Optimizer, each external template will be included in the optomized build and loaded synchronously, and so there is no additional overhead in terms of HTTP requests when requiring each template in a single location.

You can check out a basic example implementation of a Templates Module (in the context of Backbone) here.

JavaScript Comma Delimiter Pattern

Perhaps the most common syntactic error I find myself correcting in JavaScript is that of a simple missing comma separator on new lines. Such marginal oversights can become quite a nuisance to correct time and time again. Fortunately, there is a rather simple pattern which can be used to help avoid these errors with very little effort – only requiring code to be rewritten in a manner that reads more naturally while also being syntactically correct.

Typical missing comma scenario

If we are to consider the most common scenario where a comma is unintentionally omitted (and a subsequent exception is thrown), it can most likely be found within The Single var Pattern (irrespective of any personal preference towards or against the pattern itself).

For example, consider a typical block of code implementing a single var:

The above example, being rather typical and admittedly simple, does not pose much of a maintenance issue itself. However, if one is to refactor these declarations into a different order, add additional declarations, or specify more complex assignments, the probability of a comma being omitted unintentionally or becoming out of place increases.

In addition to The Single var Pattern, object literals are also a good source of occasional commas being omitted unintentionally, especially when nested within additional literals:

A Simple Solution

To help avoid such mistakes altogether, we can simply place commas before declarations, rather than after. At first, this may feel a bit awkward, but in time it becomes quite easy to get used to.

With this in mind, by placing commas first, the above could easily be refactored to the following:

As can be seen in the above example, considering we generally read code left to right, it becomes immediately apparent if a comma is missing.

For instance, take note of which implementation is easier to notice the missing comma:

I suspect most would agree that commas placed before stand out much more, and therefore it becomes much more apparent when one is missing. This appears to be so as the difference between the two is such that with commas placed after one needs to look for what is missing, whereas with commas placed before one sees what is missing.

As humans, our tendency towards patterns in general, and visual patterns in particular can not be understated. As developers, considering patterns are a significant part of our work, we should strive to take advantage of the most natural ones especially, even for things as seemingly marginal as placing comma separators first.

Decoupling Backbone Modules

One of the principle design philosophies I have advocated over the years, especially through various articles on this site, has been the importance of decoupling. And while I could go into significant detail to elaborate on the importance of decoupling, suffice it to say that all designs – from simple APIs to complex applications – can benefit considerably from a decoupled design; namely, with respect to testability, maintainability and reuse.

Decoupling in Backbone

Many of the examples which can be found around the web on Backbone are intentionally simple in that they focus on higher level concepts without diverging into specific implementation or design details. Of course, this makes sense in the context of basic examples and is certainly the right approach to take when explaining or learning something new. Once you get into real-world applications, though, one of the first things you’ll likely want to improve on is how modules communicate with each other; specifically, how modules can communicate without directly referencing one another.

As I have mentioned previously, Backbone is an extremely flexible framework, so there are many approaches one could take to facilitate the decoupling of modules in Backbone; the most common of which, and my preferred approach, is decoupling by way of events.

Basic Decoupling with Events

The simplest way to facilitate communication between discreet modules in Backbone is to have each module reference a shared event broker (a pub /sub implementation). Modules can register themselves to listen for events of interest with the broker, and modules can also communicate with other modules via events as needed. Implementing such an API in Backbone is amazingly simple, in fact, so much so that the documentation provides an example in the following one liner:

Essentially, the dispatcher simply clones (or alternately, extends) the Backbone.Events object. Different modules can reference the same dispatcher to publish and subscribe to events of interest. For example, consider the following:

In the above example, the Users Collection is completely decoupled from the UserEditor View, and vice-versa. Moreover, any module can subscribe to the 'users:add' event without having any knowledge of the module from which the event was published. Such a design is extremely flexible and can be leveraged to support any number of events and use-cases. The above example is rather simple; however, it demonstrates just how easy it is to decouple modules in Backbone with a shared EventBroker.

Namespacing Events

As can be seen in the previous example, the add event is prefixed with a users string followed by a colon. This is a common pattern used to namespace an event in order to ensure events with the same name which are used in different contexts do not conflict with one another. As a best practice, even if an application initially only has a few events, the events should be namespaced accordingly. Doing so will help to ensure that as an application grows in scope, adding additional events will not result in unintended behaviors.

A General Purpose EventBroker API

To help facilitate the decoupling of modules via namespaced events, I implemented a general purpose EventBroker which builds on the default implementation of the Backbone Events API, adding additional support for creating namespace specific EventBrokers and registering multiple events of interest for a given context.

Basic Usage

The EventBroker can be used directly to publish and subscribe to events of interest:

Creating namespaced EventBrokers

The EventBroker API can be used to create and retrieve any number of specific namespaced EventBrokers. A namespaced EventBroker ensures that all events are published and subscribed against a specific namespace.

Namespaced EventBrokers are retrieved via Backbone.EventBroker.get(namespace). If an EventBroker has not been created for the given namespace, it will be created and returned. All subsequent retrievals will return the same EventBroker instance for the specified namespace; i.e. only one unique EventBroker is created per namespace.

Since namespaced EventBrokers ensure events are only piped thru the EventBroker of the given namespace, it is not necessary to prefix event names with the specific namespace to which they belong. While this can simplify implementation code, you can still prefix event names to aid in readability if desired.

Registering Interests

Modules can register events of interest with an EventBroker via the default on method or the register method. The register method allows for registering multiple event/callback mappings for a given context in a manner similar to that of the events hash in a Backbone.View.

Alternately, Modules can simply define an “interests” property containing particular event/callback mappings of interests and register themselves with an EventBroker

For additional examples, see the backbone-eventbroker project on github.