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Fatih Aygün
Fatih Aygün

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How to get client-side navigation right

How many times have you ctrl-clicked (or cmd-clicked) on a link to open it in a new tab but it opened in the current tab or didn't open at all? How many times have you clicked on a link in a long document and when you clicked back it took you to the top of the document instead of where you had left? Client-side navigation bugs are so widespread that it's hard to believe the technique is almost 20 years old! So I decided to write down all the issues I've ever encountered and build a library that tries to solve them once and for all.

Normally, when you click on a link, your browser loads a new page from the URL specified in the href attribute of your link (an a or area element). Client-side navigation refers to the practice of using JavaScript to control page transitions without a full reload, which usually results in a snappier user experience. Despite its popularity, many implementations are broken or lacking: history manipulation, scroll restoration, ctrl + click / cmd + click / right click behavior, loading state handling etc. are often buggy or non-existent. In many cases this actually makes the user experience worse than classic navigation by breaking user expectations.

Having appeared in early 2000s, the practice has ushered in the era of Single Page Applications (SPAs). Earliest attempts used the #hash part of the URL and the window.onhashchange event. Since it is normally used for scrolling to a specific section of a document, a hash-only navigation doesn't cause a full page reload. Developers took advantage of this to implement client-side navigation with history (back/forward buttons) support. In early 2010s, the history API support landed in popular browsers which allowed using real URL paths instead of hashes.

Despite a whole decade that has passed since the arrival of the history API, there are still a myriad of challenges to be solved when implementing client-side navigation.

Intercepting history changes

window.onpopstate event is fired when the user clicks on the back/forward buttons or one of the back, forward or go methods of the history API is called. location and history.state (which is a place you can store extra data about the current location) are updated before the onpopstate event is fired.

Unfortunately this event is not fired when history.pushState or history.replaceState is called. This means that a client-side library solution must provide its own navigation function, because, barring horrible hacks, it has no way to be notified when the user of the library calls these methods.

It's not fired when the user clicks on a link either. This means that we have to listen to the click events to prevent the default behavior and handle the navigation ourselves.

Dedicated Link component vs global click handler

Preventing the browser's default behavior when the user clicks on a link can be achieved in two ways: 1) by providing a dedicated Link component that renders an a element with an attached an onclick handler, or 2) by attaching a global onclick handler to the body element.

The first approach has the advantage of being explicit: There are no surprises. Next.js and React Router both follow this approach. Opting out of client-side navigation is trivial: Just use a plain a element.

The second approach is implicit but it is easier to use in most cases: Sometimes you don't control the HTML contents of a page. Maybe it was rendered from Markdown residing in a database or a CMS. It may be hard or impossible to control the rendered a elements in such cases. SvelteKit uses this second approach. Opting out of client-side navigation is still possible: We can interpret, for instance, the presence of a rel="external" attribute as a signal for letting the browser handle the navigation. The downside of the second approach is that one has to be careful about event handling order. If you attach an onclick handler to the a element, it will run after the global one which may not be what you want. You have to use { capture: true } if you want to alter the click behavior of a link.

A third, hybrid approach is also possible: We can implement a LinkContainer component that captures the onclick events of the a elements that it contains. It solves the “pre-rendered HTML that we don't control” problem while remaining fairly explicit.

Whichever approach we choose, a Link component is still useful for styling active (or pending) links differently, a nice feature to have in navigation menus for instance.

Knowing when not to interfere

When listening to onclick events, it is important to know when to leave the handling to the browser. The following cases should be considered:

  • Was preventDefault() called before our handler?
  • Does the a element have a href attribute at all?
  • Was it a left click? Right click and middle click usually have other functions.
  • Were any of the modifier keys pressed? Ctrl, shift, alt, meta, command etc. keys are used to trigger alternative functions like opening in a new tab or window.
  • Does the a element have a target attribute whose value is not _self?
  • Does the a element have a download attribute?

If any of these conditions is met, we should let the browser handle the event.

Pending navigation

Very simple apps can render a new page synchronously but transitioning from one page to another usually has to be asynchronous in real-world use cases. Modern bundlers support code splitting and pages are natural code splitting boundaries. Loading the code for the next page is an asynchronous operation. Also, you usually need to fetch some data before rendering a page. This is also an asynchronous operation.

During classic navigation, most browsers keep showing the old page along with some kind of loading state indicator until the new one loads. This is much more useful than showing a blank loading page. Ideally, a client-side navigation solution should replicate this behavior.

The requirement of supporting asynchronous navigation causes a very subtle complication: Inevitably there will be a moment where location.href does not match currently rendered page contents. This may cause mismatches in links with relative URLs: Say you are on page /foo and you initiate a client-side navigation to /foo/bar. If there is a link whose href is baz (a relative link), it will be pointing to /foo/baz instead of /baz while the navigation is underway. One way to solve this problem is to have a base element in the document head whose href property is always kept in sync with the currently rendered location.

Scroll restoration

Classic navigation has support for scroll restoration: When the user navigates back or forward, the browser will restore the scroll position. This behavior has to be simulated when using client-side navigation.

Modern browsers have support for history.scrollRestoration which can be set to manual or auto. The former is the default value and means that the browser will not restore the scroll position. You might think that you can set it to auto and be done with it. Unfortunately, this is not the case if you have to support asynchronous rendering like we discussed above. The scroll position needs to be restored after the new page has been rendered in its entirety. Consider this scenario: You're at the bottom of a page that has contents that don't fit in the viewport (/long). You navigate to a page that does fit (/short). When you click back, automatic scroll restoration will try to scroll to the original position but unless you are able to render /long synchronously, it will fail because the contents of /short will be showing while /long is still loading and they fit the page so there's nowhere to scroll to.

This problem severely reduces the usefulness of history.scrollRestoration. A decent client-side navigation solution must set it to manual and handle scroll restoration manually, after the new page has been fully rendered. One way to approach this is to assign a unique ID to each location, keeping track of it in history.state and use it as a sessionStorage key to store the scroll position.

One more point to remember when implementing scroll restoration is to be careful about not breaking the normal behavior of #hash links.

Blocking navigation

Classic navigation has limited support for navigation blocking in the form of onbeforeunload event. When set up correctly, it will show a confirmation dialog before navigating away from the current page. This is useful to remind the user that they might lose unsaved data.

When using client-side navigation, we can show a custom dialog box in some cases. This requires “canceling” the navigation when the user decides to stay on the page. The challenge here is that, when the user clicks the back or forward button, location.href is already updated by the time the onpopstate event is called. This means that we don't know if we should go back or forward to cancel the navigation. To solve this, we can use history.state to keep track of the current location's history index and compare it to the last rendered index in order to compute a delta value to pass to history.go for “taking back” the navigation attempt. Then we can show a dialog box to ask the user if they really want to leave the page. If the answer is no, we stop, if the answer is yes, we redo the navigation using history.go(-delta).

We still need an onbeforeunload fallback in case the user clicks on a hard link or simply closes the tab.

Knave

Having failed in finding a simple library that provides all of these features, I've created knave, a framework-agnostic client-side navigation library in order to address all of these challenges once and for all. The knave-react package contains its React bindings. PRs that implement bindings for other frameworks are welcome.

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