Switching to React - First Impressions

In earlier posts I wrote that I planned to use Handlebars as my templating engine for the CYOAG project. Things happened since then that caused me to change directions towards ReactJS. I'll take a moment here to say that I've had no contact with or sponsorship from the Handlebars or React teams. This is all just my opinion, formulated based on personal experience working with these technologies on the side-project level. Incidentally, though I'm enjoying working with React, this is notwithstanding my opinion of Facebook, who we have to thank for React. So there's some food for thought.

So why did I make the switch?

I realized Handlebars was more challenging to learn than a templating system needs to be. I didn't find community support to be as extensive or helpful as I'd like. Handlebars also hasn't enjoyed industry adoption as extensively as React, so from a career growth aspect React seemed a better choice. Ironically, the reason I chose Handlebars originally was because we used it on a project at work. But after talking to the lead dev on that project, I learned it wasn't selected for its quality or utility, but due to circumstance. Finally, having built my first working Handlebars prototype, it just didn't feel right. There's no remedy for that.

So, React. It's already big in the web dev scene, has been for some time, and continues to grow. Whether it'll become a longstanding mainstay in industry remains to be seen, but signs point to yes.

I'm surprised to say it, but React was easier to pick up than Handlebars. It surprises me because React has lots of new ideas and syntax you have to learn, while Handlebars has relatively few and advertises itself as a "no frustration" templating system; which, I can attest, is patently false. React, likewise, advertises itself as "painless," also a lie. I'm being a little harsh here, but point being that I find React less painful than Handlebars, despite the fact that neither is a walk in the park.

To be fair, Handlebars lends itself better to smaller projects. The infrastructure and planning required to use it is lighter. To get Hello World up in React, you have to do more work, download more libraries, and learn more technology: JSX, props, state, rendering, components and their lifecycles, etc. In Handlebars, you slap up a template and you're off to the races (relatively-ish). Build processes are another story. I found precompilation to be roughly equivalent in difficulty from Handlebars to React. The documentation is better for React, though, due to superior community support. More community support means more flavors of help, and a greater likelihood one of them will match your style of learning.

The appeal of React is reusability, structure, and organization. From a mile-high perspective, let's say you're the app lead for Facebook, and you want a UI component to let people "Like" things. All kinds of things; wall posts, images, events, shared links, comments, everything. With React and some proper planning, you can make a single component displaying a "Like" link, that dynamically hooks up to whatever needs to be "Like"d. The component itself doesn't care what it belongs to. You can plug-and-play it wherever. One downside to this, as mentioned above, is that the initial development of this component is relatively heavy. Once you have it built, though, you can reuse it dozens, hundreds, millions of times, at very little dev cost.

Another downside is that you have to be conscious of your component structure when building larger applications. CYOAG is not a large application, but if I didn't think about component structure in advance - and thus plan out how state was to managed and communicated among components - I'd find myself having a real bad time. The complexity of component interactions isn't hard to wrap your head around, but once you've built them, that complexity makes maintenance and modification a chore, and a considerable risk.

Part of this is because state and props "cascade" (my term) from parent components to child components when you build an application The React Way. So if anything changes along the cascade path, you have to make sure you account for it at every step and in every handler. Of course, things change as we go, this is life; but I think we can all agree it's to our advantage to minimize this, and with React, best practices in design amplify this risk/advantage relationship.

In short, React encourages better software engineering principles. Other technologies allow you to start hacking out a solution before thinking it through, which can lead to other kinds of headaches down the road.

Non-technical Example

We can use my (thus far incomplete) React component design doc for CYOAG as an example for this. I won't bother quoting the doc here, you can read it if you like. In short, the application state is best managed at the top level. One easy reason to explain for this is that if you allow children to manage state, you'll quickly find yourself making more calls in integration, and having a hard time communicating among components. So we manage the state at the top level, and (in short) provide getters and setters for particular parts of the state to children through props.

When building your components, it's helpful to know what state you'll need to be passing down to children from the ancestral point of view; and what props to expect to receive from the descendent's point of view; and what functions will be needed in order to manage and pass these around. And later, if changes need to be made, you need to keep this "flow" of state in mind to preserve it.

These are my early days with React and my opinions and understanding will undoubtedly develop as I develop applications using React. Once I start using this code "in production" on CYOAG, I'll have plenty more to say, I'm sure.

Thanks for reading!
- Steven Kitzes

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