The three states of data-driven UI

Posted on November 20th, 2019

How should our UI behave, when our logic doesn't really know, whether there will be any actual data?

I remember the times, when there was no such issue as "not knowing" about the data in the UI. We knew, and if it was there – we imported the template. If not – we didn't even display the section responsible. It was all server rendered and handled by a simple if condition.

{% if comments %}
  {% include "comments.html" with comments %}
{% endif %}

And that was it, really.

We can have similar approach today. Why not? In our React app, it would be as easy as to write

comments && <Comments />

This is a binary state. True or false, 1 or 0. Nothing more to it.

The third state

As clarified before, two states are true – there is some data, or false – there is not. But we can expand it, have an ambiguous in-the-middle one:

const STATE = {
  OK: "OK",
  FETCHING: "FETCHING",
  NO_DATA: "NO_DATA",
};

This will allow us to have more complex rendering and provide user with the actual information about what is happening.

Assuming the backend returns a JSON array, code can look like this:

const Comments = (props) => {
  const [fetchState, setFetchState] = React.useState(STATE.FETCHING);
  const [comments, setComments] = React.useState([]);
  
  React.useEffect(() => {
    (async () => {
      const { data } = await props.fetchComments({ id: props.id });
      setFetchState(data.length > 0);
    })();
  }, []);
    
  if (fetchState === STATE.OK) {
    return comments.map(comment => <Comment key={comment.id} {...comment} />);
  }
    
  if (fetchState === STATE.NO_DATA) {
    return <NoData message="No comments for this post" />;
  }
    
  return <Loading />;
};

We are using very extensive render fragment – two ifs and one default return. This is mostly for clarity, as this could be written in a shorter way. It now demonstrates purely, what will be displayed when. And, we could have more states, for example, when fetching will not be successful.

This approach is far better than basing on state derived from data. We could check comments array for length, and even turn it into null when fetch returns no result. But this introduces a risky type change – we'd transform an array into a null. We'd have to check this type every time we would like to do an operation on this value. This is far too error prone.

Conclusion

This is very basic and very simple example of how UI should be treated with async data. Displaying endless spinners when there's nothing fetched is very bad practice and should be avoided. With this approach, you can have cleaner and more intuitive UI and UX.

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