railway

Guide to Unobtrusive JavaScript - Part 2

This is part 2 of my Guide to Unobtrusive JavaScript. It’s been over a month since I published the first part of the Guide to Unobtrusive JavaScript. As you can see from the date of this article (btw. why does Typo show the article’s creation date instead of its publication date? If anyone knows, drop me a line – I’d appreciate it), riginally, I wanted to publish the second article just a few days after the first but – as usual – projects got in the way. So here it finally is. I hope the quality makes up for the delay. Sorry again for keeping you waiting.

If you haven’t read part 1 and aren’t familiar with the term Unobtrusive JavaScript and/or the basics of Dan Webb’s lowpro, I strongly recommend reading part 1 before going on with this part.

Taking it further – lowpro behaviors

Let’s re-visit the rollover example from part 1. We wanted to have a simple rollover effect for all our images with the CSS class rollover. Just for fun, I’ll start at the end and show you the code that results from using a behavior before we implement the actual behavior:

Event.addBehavior({ 
// expects image names to be in the following format: some_image.extension 
  'img.rollover': Rollover
});

Wow – we’ve compressed 20 lines compressed into a single line of code. And it’s even more declarative than before! But of course this doesn’t come for free – we still need to define the behavior ourselves:

Rollover = Behavior.create({
  initialize: function() {
    this.split_src = this.element.src.split(/\./);
    this.parts = this.split_src.first().split(/_/); // split main part and extension
    this.extension = this.split_src.last();
  },
  onmouseover: function(e) {
    if(this.parts.last() != 'over') {
      this.parts.push('over');
      this.element.src = [ this.parts.join('_'), this.extension ].join('.');
    }
  },
  onmouseout: function(e) {
    if(this.parts.last() == 'over') {
      this.parts.pop();
      this.element.src = [ this.parts.join('_'), this.extension ].join('.');
    }
  }
});

Most of the code still looks the same as in part 1 but now we’ve encapsulated the behavior into a separate behavioral class – which is great, from an OO point of view. Every element on the page that suffices the conditions (i.e. it is an image with class rollover_) will instantiate its own Rollover object that handles its events (_onmouseover and onmouseout).

Taking a closer look at the Rollover class, you’ll notice that there is an initialize method that we haven’t had before. As usual in Prototype, this is the constructor: It takes responsibility for setting up a basic Rollover object. In this case, it initializes the parts array and the extension for further use in the actual behavioral methods.

We can go further and apply a namespacing strategy to keep our behaviors neatly ordered: Just rename Rollover to Image.Rollover to be more explicit.

For practice, let’s also rewrite the labeled form example from the first article to be a behavior.

NOTE: I had a little error in the code of the first part. I set the value correctly (using .value for textfields and .innerHTML for textareas) but when reading the values I only used the .value version. This has been corrected for this article to use the $F utility method. I’ve also internalized the hiding of the associated label.

Form.WithInlineLabels = Behavior.create({
  initialize: function() {
    this.label = this.element.previous('label');
    this.label.hide();

    this.labelText = this.label.innerHTML;
    this.element.tagName == 'TEXTAREA' ? this.element.innerHTML = this.labelText : this.element.value = this.labelText;
    this.element.addClassName('with_label');
  },
  onfocus: function(e) {
    if($F(this.element) == this.labelText) {
      this.element.removeClassName('with_label');
      this.element.tagName == 'TEXTAREA' ? this.element.innerHTML = '' : this.element.value = '';
    }
  },
  onblur: function(e) {
    if($F(this.element).blank()) {
      this.element.addClassName('with_label');
      this.element.tagName == 'TEXTAREA' ? this.element.innerHTML = this.labelText : this.element.value = this.labelText;
    }
  }
});

Yet again, this makes the call in Event.addBehavior dead easy:

Event.addBehavior({ 
  // makes all textfields and textareas use inline labels
  'input[type=text], textarea': Form.WithInlineLabels
});

Don’t rewrite – reuse!

So what’s the advantage of using this approach apart from saving a few lines of code and making the body of Event.addBehavior way more declarative and concise? Well, a behavior is a set of definition how a certain element reacts to given events (e.g. when hovered with the mouse, when clicked, etc.). So each behavior object encapsulates functionality – and in OOP, encapsulated functionality usually means that the functionality is reusable and maintainable.

It’s like that for lowpro behaviors: You can easily re-use the behavior in other projects. Just put all your behaviors in a separate JavaScript file. After that, you could have a setup like the following:

<script src="/javascripts/prototype.js" type="text/javascript"></script>
<script src="/javascripts/lowpro.js" type="text/javascript"></script>
<script src="/javascripts/behaviors.js" type="text/javascript"></script>
<script src="/javascripts/application.js" type="text/javascript"></script>

behaviors.js keeps a collection of all your behavioral classes (you could even split it into multiple files once you’ve defined a bunch of behaviors that are related) and application.js connects them to DOM elements using Event.addBehavior. Great and clean separation of concerns!

If you find that you’ve created lots of behaviors, you can even split them further and have behaviors.image.js, behaviors.form.js etc.

Making it more dynamic – passing in arguments

Let’s look at an example where we extend our existing behavior because this also gives us the opportunity of looking at the possibility to pass in arguments to a behavior to make it a little more dynamic. Take a look at the form with inline labels again and assume that you want some forms to not hide the labels but instead show them together with the inline labels.

Form.WithInlineLabels = Behavior.create({
  initialize: function(options) {
    this.options = options || {};

    this.label = this.element.previous('label');

    if(!this.options["showLabels"]) {
      this.label.hide();
    }

    this.labelText = this.label.innerHTML;
    this.element.tagName == 'TEXTAREA' ? this.element.innerHTML = this.labelText : this.element.value = this.labelText;
    this.element.addClassName('with_label');
  },
  // ... onfocus and onblur definitions
});

Now the behavior takes an optional hash named options as a parameter. Now we can use both variants, with and without labels (default is, of course, without labels):

Event.addBehavior({
  'form.withLabels input[type=text], form.withLabels textarea': Form.WithInlineLabels({ showLabels: true }),
  'form.withoutLabels input[type=text], form.withoutLabels textarea': Form.WithInlineLabels
});

Why did I use an options hash instead of just using a simple parameter? After all, we’re only passing in one argument, right? Well, for now, yes, there’s only one option: showLabels. But we don’t know what we might add in the future: There might be other options as well and there might be bugfixes. If we change methods without being careful, we might break backwards compatibility – and if we do, we might have to hack our bugfixes in if we want/need to use them. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just drop the behavior in an replace the old, buggy one?

Turns out that hashes are a great way to do that. If you had deployed the first version of the behavior (the one without the showLabels option) and then later added the new option to it (and maybe some bugfixes), you could easily replace the old behavior. Why? Because nothing changes for the existing code: The behavior can still be used without a parameter and it defaults to the old behavior! If you make sure that you’re backwards compatible, anytime you find that you need new options or if you discover a bug, you can just go in, fix it and deploy it to all your existing projects. Now that’s really cool!

And by the way: This is how most cool frameworks in pretty much every programming language handle it, so it’s pretty much become some kind of best practice. Think of Ajax.Request in Prototype, for example: It takes the URL of the request as its first parameter (this makes sense – there absolutely needs to be a URL – otherwise there’s not going to be a request!) and all its options as its second parameter. If Sam Stephenson decided that the class needs more options, he can just add them without breaking existing installations.

Pre-defined behaviors

Writing your own behaviors isn’t actually the only option. lowpro actually ships with a couple of useful AJAX behaviors: Remote.Link, Remote.Form, Remote and Observed. You can find some additional (partly non-AJAX) behaviors in Dan’s SVN repository. Right now, only the DateSelector, Calendar and the drag&drop behaviors are implemented. I also have to admit that I haven’t tested these yet, so I don’t know whether they work correctly or not!

I’d give you an example of using Remote.Link but there’s already a great example out there written by Matt Aimonetti: In his article AJAX pagination in less than 5 minutes he shows how to use the great will_paginate plugin with AJAX.

Speaking of AJAX: If your application relies heavily on AJAX, you’ll find that quite often you add or modify elements of your page. Now imagine, you add content to the DOM that contains one or more images with class rollover. Since lowpro adds behaviors when the dom:ready event fires, the behaviors won’t get attached to elements that are added afterwards. Of course, Dan realized that and provided you with an option to ensure that behaviors are assigned properly after AJAX requests:

Event.addBehavior.reassignAfterAjax = true;

This triggers an additional onComplete handler for AJAX responders that lowpro defined. When triggered, it reloads the behaviors and reassigns them to the matching elements. This way, the behaviors you define are applied to each and every element that shows up on the page – either right from the start or after some AJAX requests.

One more thing while we’re talking about pre-defined behaviors. I haven’t talked about extending existing behaviors by subclassing them. If you take a look at the lowpro source you’ll find the following implementation of the Remote behaviors:

Remote.Base = {
  // code
}

Remote.Link = Behavior.create(Remote.Base, {
  // code
});

Remote.Form = Behavior.create(Remote.Base, {
  // code
});

I’ve left out the code for the sake of brevity.

What you can see here is that the Remote.Link and the Remote.Form behavior both extend the behavior of Remote.Base. This behaves quite similarly to Prototype’s Class.create – it’s just plain old subclassing that you’ll find in every object-oriented language. Since I assume that you understand the basics of OOP I won’t go into detail here.

Resumé

lowpro gives you the ability to easily define and apply behaviors for given elements on the page. Compared to the approach of the first article, this gives you not only a clear separation of concerns (i.e. HTML for structure, CSS for design, JavaScript for functionality – without them cluttering up each other) but also clearly encapsulates functionality and makes it reusable and easily maintainable. If you discover a bug or a browser incompatibility (mind you, IE8 is under way …) you can just go in an fix the bug in one place (i.e. the behavior class) and deploy the new behaviors for all your projects. Ideally, you don’t even have to modify anything else – now that’s great, isn’t it?!

Finally, here are a few suggestions about using lowpro:

  • The first rule is easy: Whenever you’re defining how an element should react to certain events, use lowpro. It makes your code more maintainable and gives you a clear separation of concerns.
  • If you feel that you’re defining a behavior that you might in future projects, externalize it in a behavior class. After that, it’s best to put it in an extra JavaScript file (e.g. behaviors.js) to make it easier to use for other projects.
  • When defining behaviors, try to be as general as possible. It’s absolutely okay to make a few assumptions about page structure and CSS (remember: Convention over Configuration) but general applicability is what sets a really good behavior apart.
  • If you need to configure your behavior objects, use parameters. If there’s one or two arguments that your behavior absolutely needs (like Ajax.Request needs a URL), use scalars – otherwise use an options hash. If you want to ensure backwards compatibility, don’t ever change the method signature – only add new parameters at the end and make them optional.

Resources

Some links that might be of interest for you:

What do you think?

As usual, I’d love to hear your comments and suggestions. Also, feel free to ask any questions related to lowpro or JavaScript in general. I’ll do my best to answer them if I find the time.