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Cover image for modal.open() - Imperative Component API in React
Martin
Martin

Posted on • Updated on

modal.open() - Imperative Component API in React

Well, here is the gist of this article:
Your custom React components can have an imperative API of your own choosing. And it's even quite simple to implement.
The feature is supported (for function components) by React since v16.8 (The One With Hooks) but I have a hunch that knowledge about its existence is not widespread.
But let's start at the beginning.

declarative vs imperative - props vs ref

React components usually accept a bunch of properties: the props.
Those props form the declarative API of the component; and for most use-cases this is perfectly sufficient.

But from time to time we encounter some component or other that can be switched on and off; or has some other kind of triggerable functionality that would fit more naturally in an imperative API.

If we don't know about imperative APIs we are forced to pull its state up into the parent, although we would rather like the component to encapsulate and control its own state.

const [isModalOpen, setIsModalOpen] = useState(false);

<button onClick={() => setIsModalOpen(true)}>Open</button>
<Modal isOpen={isModalOpen} />
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It seems like every <Modal /> component I have ever seen is built that way.

Let's look for an alternative.

When using an imperative API we would obtain a reference to the component instance, and call any exposed API function on that instance.

const modal = useRef();

<button onClick={() => modal.current.open()}>Open</button>
<Modal ref={modal} />
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But to make this actually work requires the implementation of <Modal /> to explicitly allow this scenario.
Ever wondered what forwardRef and useImperativeHandle are good for?

forwardRef and useImperativeHandle

You cannot just set ref on a component like you would on a simple <div>. React removes it from the props (same goes for key btw), and the implementation of the component would not be able to retrieve it via props.ref.
A component can be wrapped with forwardRef to allow the ref to be tunnelled through; the ref would then be available to the implementation as a second argument to the render function (first and usually the only argument to the render function is props). So it is a deliberate choice by the component author to allow the usage of ref.

const Modal = forwardRef((props, ref) => {
  const [isOpen, setIsOpen] = useState(false);
  return isOpen && <div className="modal">{props.children}</div>;
});
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We can now attach an object to ref.current that exposes a curated selection of functions to open, close, or toggle our modal. But we really don't want to create and attach that object every time the modal is rendered. If possible this should only be created once during the lifetime of our modal. And that is exactly what the little known hook useImperativeHandle does.

const Modal = forwardRef((props, ref) => {
  const [isOpen, setIsOpen] = useState(false);
  useImperativeHandle(
    ref,
    () => ({
      open: () => setIsOpen(true),
      close: () => setIsOpen(false),
      toggle: () => setIsOpen((_) => !_),
    }),
    []
  );
  return isOpen && <div className="modal">{props.children}</div>;
});
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That's all we have to do to create and support an imperative API for our component.
We now offer functions for opening and closing the modal, but we can still accept declarative props for things like headerContent, bodyContent, footerContent, and so forth (honestly I would utilize the children for anything considered content, but that's not today's topic).

But could we also allow both?

controlled and uncontrolled

An <input> element can be use as both; as a controlled element and as an uncontrolled element; depending on whether the value state is managed by the parent or by the child.

Could we implement the modal to allow both usages? We could check whether an isOpen state was provided by the parent and treat this as the controlled scenario, and as the uncontrolled scenario otherwise. In the controlled scenario the external state is used to decide how to render; in the uncontrolled scenario the internal state is used.

const Modal = forwardRef((props, ref) => {
  const isUncontrolled = props.isOpen === undefined;
  const [isOpen, setIsOpen] = useState(false);
  useImperativeHandle(
    ref,
    () => ({
      open: () => setIsOpen(true),
      close: () => setIsOpen(false),
      toggle: () => setIsOpen((_) => !_),
    }),
    []
  );
  const showModal =
    (isUncontrolled && isOpen) || (!isUncontrolled && props.isOpen);
  return showModal && <div className="modal">{props.children}</div>;
});
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sharing state with the parent

I'm not talking about lifting the state into the parent. I'm talking about managing the state inside the component but allowing the parent read-access. And most importantly: allowing read-access with the added benefit of controlling re-renders when the state changes.

We can decide to publish our internal state together with the API functions as a plain old property on the API object.
The useImperativeHandle hook supports a dependency array that allows us to re-create the API object when relevant portions of our internal state change.

const Modal = forwardRef((props, ref) => {
  const [isOpen, setIsOpen] = useState(false);
  useImperativeHandle(
    ref,
    () => ({
      open: () => setIsOpen(true),
      close: () => setIsOpen(false),
      toggle: () => setIsOpen((_) => !_),
      isOpen,
    }),
    [isOpen]
  );
  return isOpen && <div className="modal">{props.children}</div>;
});
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If the parent of our component utilizes the useRef hook, any changes to ref.current will not trigger a re-render and the parent might see a stale isOpen state.

const modal = useRef();

// this info will be stale
{`The modal is ${modal.current?.isOpen ? 'open' : 'closed'}`}
<button onClick={() => modal.current.open()}>Open</button>
<Modal ref={modal} />
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But the useImperativeHandle hook also supports callback-refs (just a function that is assigned to the ref property; the callback is called when the ref changes, and we can store the reference, for example in a useState). The setter function of a useState is perfectly fine to be used with a callback-ref, triggering a state change and therefore a re-render whenever the referenced object changes.

const [modal, setModal] = useState(null);

// this info will never be stale
{`The modal is ${modal?.isOpen ? 'open' : 'closed'}`}
<button onClick={() => modal.open()}>Open</button>
<Modal ref={setModal} />
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Notice that when we use a useState instead of a useRef the access slightly changes: modal.open() instead of modal.current.open() and <Modal ref={setModal} /> instead of <Modal ref={modal} />.

Modals, Dropdowns, Accordions, and the World

What types of components would benefit from an imperative API? From the top of my head I would say any component that needs to be able to be toggled between open and closed states; like Modals, Dropdowns, and Accordions.

But also anything with a very complex state (where lifting up the state into the parent is a veritable nightmare).
Imagine a nice re-usable and integratable <Worldmap /> component, designed to be extendable with custom functionality, and only your imagination is the limit to what you can do. Say it supports an onClick with some useful event args like { longitude, latitude } corresponding to your click. Would you want to implement setting a pin where you clicked? Or a context menu that allows you all sorts of things for the clicked location: finding the nearest airport, calculating a route, or zooming in? For extendability and customizability an imperative API would be a boon.

<Worldmap
  ref={map}
  onClick={(position /*{ longitude, latitude }*/) =>
    showMenu([
      {
        text: "Set pin",
        action: () => map.current.addMarker(position),
      },
      {
        text: "Find airport",
        action: () => geoService.findAirport(position),
      },
      {
        text: "Show route",
        action: () => geoService.findRoute(position),
      },
      {
        text: "Zoom in",
        action: () => map.current.zoom({ position, zoom: 2.5 }),
      },
    ])
  }
/>
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I really hope this feature would get more attention. I believe we would see components with better dev experience as a result.

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