React Christmas

Some cool React tips and tricks

A 4 minute read written by
Kristofer Giltvedt Selbekk
23.12.2017

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After spending some time with React, I've learned a few nice tips and tricks to make your app as composable, declarative and maintainable as possible.

Refs - and when not to use them

First out is refs. Refs are references to either a React component or a DOM node. They are useful when you want to call imperative functions, like focusing an input field or triggering some other imperative DOM API. They are also a nice escape hatch whenever you want to reach into a component for some reason.

Here's how it could look:

class SearchField extends React.Component {
  componentDidMount() {
    this._inputRef.focus();
  }
  render() {
    return <input type="search" ref={ref => (this._inputRef = ref)} />;
  }
}

There are a few gotchas with refs though. First off, as I mentioned above, they're an escape hatch. Whenever you can't do something declaratively, the refs are there to rescue you. However, there aren't a lot of stuff you can't make declarative if you really try - which again gives you a nicer API that's easier to understand, maintain and test.

If you need to get the state from a component, either extract that state to the parent component, or send in a callback that will be called at the correct point in time.

If you want to control the rendering, you might want to look into the render-props pattern.

If you can't find any way to not use a ref - try a little harder. Chances are, there is a way to make your API declarative.

Rendering conditionally

Sometimes you want to render different components depending on some state. JSX does not render false or undefined, so you can use conditional short circuting to render a given part of your component only if a certain condition is true:

const SomeComponent = ({ name, address }) => (
  <div>
    <h2>{name}</h2>
    {address && <p>{address}</p>}
  </div>
);

If you're in an if-else situation, you can even use a ternary! Watch out though - these can get pretty ugly if you're not switching between pretty simple component structures:

const SomeComponent = ({ data }) => (
  <div>{data ? <ShowData {...data} /> : <Spinner />}</div>
);

Finally - don't be afraid to return early from your render function. It'll save you tons of deeply nested &&s further down.

const SomeComponent = ({ data }) => {
  if (!data) {
    return null;
  }
  return (
    <div>
      <h2>Data</h2>
      <ShowData {...data} />
    </div>
  );
};

Inline functions - and why they aren't a big deal

First, let's show you what an inline function is:

const SomeComponent = props => (
  <button onClick={() => alert('I was clicked!')}>Click me</button>
);

The callback inside the <button />'s onClick handler is an inline function. Every time you render this component, this function is re-created, which sounds inherently bad.

In reality though, it's not a big deal. Ryan Florence, who co-authored React Router, wrote this inspiring blog post explaining in layman's terms how ridiculous this fretting about inline functions is. I highly recommend you read that article - he explains it much better than I ever could.

Use DOM props when you can!

I've seen component libraries that specify tons of props for pretty simple components like buttons and links, and then re-apply them later on. Often, they're given slightly different names to improve the API. Here's one such example:

const MyButton = props => {
  const { invalid, disabled, loading, value } = props;
  return (
    <button
      aria-invalid={invalid}
      className={`button \${loading ? 'button--loading' : ''}`}
      disabled={disabled}
    >
      {value}
    </button>
  );
};

Now you have to remember two APIs - one for the DOM and one for your particular component. This is a huge cognitive load (at least for me), so I tend to submit a breaking pull request making them look like this:

const MyButton = props => {
  const { loading, ...rest } = props;
  return (
    <button
      className={`button \${loading ? 'button--loading' : ''}`}
      {...rest}
    />
  );
};

This has three main advantages over the former. First off, it maintains the original API. Second, you can send in the value as children, so it'll look that much more declarative. Thirdly, I don't have to add new props all the time, as any unknown props are simply spread directly on the DOM element.

That last part might sound scary to some of you - because that means you'll be able to send in props that aren't DOM compatible, and that'll result in a warning from React. My experience is that this is an error you'll notice quickly while developing, and that it rarely (if ever) gets into production code.

Learn the dev tools!

Finally, here's a trick that dwarfs all other tricks. If you didn't know already, React has its own developer tools, that lets you inspect your components, their state and their props. Another great little hack is that you can toggle a feature that highlights any components that update - a great way to see if you're re-rendering when you shouldn't (and therefore can improve performance). You can get them for both Chrome and Firefox.

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