Compound Components in React: The Basics

This post is meant to guide you through a working example on CodeSandbox. I recommend following along on a desktop. đŸ‘¾

At the end of 2017 Kent C. Dodds released a fantastic set of videos called Advanced React Component Patterns on egghead.io. In them he spent some time discussing an idea termed compound components.

I had gone into those videos with a focus on learning more about render props and context, so it’s funny to look back over a half-year later and realize that out of everything in the series (which I highly recommend), compound components have slowly progressed from being an overlooked technique to one of my favorite ways of composing UI.

What are compound components?#

Take a second to look at the documentation for semantic-ui-react, notably their Form component. It shouldn’t take long before you notice something different about the way this component is being declared.

import { Form } from 'semantic-ui-react'

const Usage = () => (
  <Form>
    <Form.Group>
      <Form.Input />
      <Form.Select />
      <Form.Button />
    </Form.Group>
  </Form>
)

Form is an example of a compound component. It is made up of a subset of other components that all work in tandem to produce some functionality.

Note that I never imported Form.Group or Form.Input, etc., just the Form itself. This is an important observation and we will find out how this is possible later.

I also want to point out that the object dot-notation-esque syntax seen in the example above is not the de-facto way of writing compound components. In fact, this incredibly informative talk given by Ryan Florence on the topic never uses this syntax at all.

It’s not required, however in 2018 it is possible and therefore I opt for that route.

What problems do they solve?#

There is a reason that I chose semantic-ui-react as an example of a library utilizing compound components. In fact, the majority of their components are authored using this technique.

Why would they do that? There has to be a good reason, right?

There is, actually. You see, when you build a component library like semantic-ui-react, your end users are front end developers with a host of their own problems as well. Problems like ill-defined project requirements, constant design changes, poorly documented code. The list goes on.

You don’t want to be a part of that list. In fact, your goal should be to alleviate some of the pain that stems from that list. Compound components are a step in that direction.

They provide flexibility for the end user. They abstract away a lot of moving parts by managing state within themselves, state that the end user shouldn’t need to worry about. If written properly, compound components could turn code written in a fettuccine alfredo-like fashion into a box of well-designed legos.

Getting started#

Still reading? Cool. Let’s write some code.

Normally I would create an example project on GitHub, but with the advent of CodeSandbox that just seems silly now-a-days. If you’re not familiar with CodeSandbox, are you alive friend? Are you living? Jokes aside, it’s a browser-based development environment with a host of other cool features.

We’re going to be building a simple chat application that manages a few different pieces of state such as the current message value and the entire list of messages sent. The goal is to have all of these pieces working together fluidly behind the scenes, while still providing flexibilty for the user of the component.

I’ve created the initial project structure using CodeSandbox’s creact-react-app template here. After you sign in you can fork the template to your own sandbox.

When you open up the template you should see a src/components directory with four components:

  1. Chat - the parent component that manages the entire state of the chat app.

  2. Messages - renders a list of all messages that have been sent.

  3. Input - allows a user to enter a new message.

  4. Button - sends a message.

Isn’t this sufficient?#

Sure, the code that currently exists is sufficient for most cases, but it’s like a stiff piece of cardboard. There’s no flexibility! What if you wanted to change the rendering order of Chat, maybe by moving the messages below the input? What if you wanted to invert design control of each message over to the user? This is what compound components will give you.

In order to achieve this we’ll need to discuss three things:

  • static properties
  • React.Children.Map
  • React.cloneElement

The items above are what enable compound components using the dot-notation syntax that semantic-ui-react utilizes so heavily. We’ll be using them to refactor the existing project. If you can understand these three things then you’re on your way to crafting some truly awesome components.

static properties#

The static keyword was introducted in ES6 as a way to define static methods on a javascript class. In order to use them you’ll need to configure your project to support Class Fields & Static Properties, a Stage-3 TC39 proposal. Luckily, create-react-app supports this out-of-the-box. Yay facebook, amirite?

Note: If you are following along with another project that isn’t bootstrapped with create-react-app, you can enable this feature via babel-plugin-transform-class-properties.

Let’s take the first step towards a more flexible Chat component by adding three static properties called Messages, Input and Button, with their values equal to the corresponding components:

// src/components/Chat.js

import React, { Component } from 'react'
import Messages from './Messages'
import Input from './Input'
import Button from './Button'

class Chat extends Component {
  static Messages = Messages
  static Input = Input
  static Button = Button

  // ...

}

I’m going to refer to these static properties as “sub-components” from this point forward. They will eventually enable us to invert layout control over to users of Chat. However, declaring them as static properties isn’t enough. Currently they aren’t doing anything. Why is that?

Take a look at the Chat component’s render method:

// src/components/Chat.js

class Chat extends Component {

  // ...

  render() {
    const { currentMessage, messages } = this.state;
    const { updateCurrentMessage, add } = this

    return (
      <div>
        <h1>Chatroom</h1>
        <Messages messages={messages} />
        <Input 
          value={currentMessage} 
          onChange={updateCurrentMessage} 
        />
        <Button onClick={add} />
      </div>
    )
  }
}

The layout is still hardcoded, going against our flexible philosophy. What we desire is to have the user of the component determine how things render. In order to do this, we first need to remove the Messages, Input and Button components from the render method completely. Let’s also remove the variables defined at the beginning of render since we aren’t using them at the moment:

// src/components/Chat.js

class Chat extends Component {

  // ...

  render() {
    return (
      <div>
        <h1>Chatroom</h1>
      </div>
    )
  }
}

We’re no longer hardcoding the layout, so users of Chat can explicitly declare it in their own code using the dot-notation syntax. Let’s simulate this by updating the App component in src/index.js with the following:

// src/index.js

function App() {
  return (
    <div className="App">
      <Chat>
        <Chat.Messages />
        <Chat.Input />
        <Chat.Button />
      </Chat>
    </div>
  );
}

Things are slowly starting to take shape, but now the app is broken. All that’s rendering is <h1>Chatroom</h1>. At first glance, you might think the solution would be to render this.props.children underneath it:

// src/components/Chat.js

class Chat extends Component {

  // ...

  render() {
    const { children } = this.props

    return (
      <div>
        <h1>Chatroom</h1>
        {children}
      </div>
    )
  }
}

However, now we get an error. The error stems from the fact that Chat.Messages is not getting a messages prop the way it did when we were hardcoding the layout in the render method. This also means that the other two components, Chat.Input and Chat.Button, are not getting their props either.

We can’t put the onus on the user to pass those props around. They don’t even have access to them. They’re tucked away in a black box. So now the question becomes, how do we keep this flexible component syntax while also passing data?

This is where the next two items on our list of things to discuss, React.Children.map and React.cloneElement, come in to play.

React.Children.map#

According to the React docs, React.Children is a top-level API that “provides utilities” for dealing with this.props.children. One of those utilities is React.Children.map. It behaves similarly to the native Array.map method in JavaScript. It iterates through a component’s direct children, allowing you to manipulate each child in any way you see fit:

React.Children.map(this.props.children, child => {
  /* do stuff */
})

Let’s update the render method of Chat, using React.Children.map to return each child:

// src/components/Chat.js

// ...

render() {
    const { children } = this.props;
    return (
      <div>
        <h1>Chatroom</h1>
        {React.Children.map(children, child => {
          return child;
        })}
      </div>
    );
  }

After you save, you’ll notice that the error is still there. That’s because we’re still not passing any props to the children. Luckily, React gives us another utility to make this happen.

React.cloneElement#

The last item to discuss is React.cloneElement, another method offered by the React API. According to the docs, React.cloneElement will:

“Clone and return a new React element using element as the starting point.”

That’s useful. Not only do we have the ability to map over this.props.children, but we also have the ability to transform those children. The next line in the docs provides more insight into how this is done:

“The resulting element will have the original element’s props with the new props merged in shallowly. New children will replace existing children.”

So, React.cloneElement provides a transformation window in which you can replace an existing element with a copy of itself. This copy, or clone, can accept additional props you explicitly define during the cloning process.

It’s important to note that React performs a “shallow merge” with these additional props and any props that existed on the element before it was cloned. Therefore, if the cloned element previously had a prop named foo, and you decide to add an additional prop that is also named foo during the cloning process, your prop will overwrite the old one.

With this information, along with React.Children.map, we have everything we need to access the sub-components of Chat and pass them the data they need. However, in order to do this you need a mechanism for identifying specific children. This is important, else you wouldn’t be able to pass the right prop to the right child.

Furthermore, it’s not enough to just clone each child willy-nilly, because there will undoubtedly be children that should be left alone. You have to think about these use cases when building compound components that will be used by other developers.

Identifying children#

There are a few ways to do this, and they’re all relatively similar. I’ll show you the way that my team and I identify specific children as it has worked well for us. We use a property on components called displayName. According to the docs, the displayName property is primarily used for debugging purposes, however I find it useful here.

You can explicitly add a displayName to any class or function component. It’s the same as adding propTypes or defaultProps:

// src/components/Messages.js

const Messages = ({ messages }) => (
  
  // ...

)

Messages.displayName = "Messages"
// src/components/Input.js

const Input = ({ value, onChange }) => (
  
  // ...

)

Input.displayName = "Input"
// src/components/Button.js

const Button = ({ onClick }) => (
  
  // ...

)

Button.displayName = "Button"

This value is now accessible on each child inside of the React.Children.map via child.type.displayName:

// src/components/Chat.js

// ...

render() {
  const { messages, currentMessage } = this.state
  const { children } = this.props
  const { updateCurrentMessage, add } = this

  return (
    <div>
      <h1>Chatroom</h1>
      {React.Children.map(children, child => {
        if (child.type.displayName === 'Messages') {
          return React.cloneElement(child, { messages })
        }

        if (child.type.displayName === 'Input') {
          return React.cloneElement(child, {
            value: currentMessage,
            onChange: updateCurrentMessage
          })
        }

        if (child.type.displayName === 'Button') {
          return React.cloneElement(child, {
            onClick: add
          })
        }

        return child
      })}
    </div>
  )
}

With the code above we are now identifying specific children of the Chat component using their set displayName, cloning them, and passing each custom props.

The lingering error message should now be gone and everything should be working properly! You just wrote your first compound component, albeit a pretty basic one. It’s definitely more flexible and user-friendly than before, but not by much.

Drawbacks#

We now have a group of components that manage themselves internally and allow the user to manipulate their layout order. This is nice, however there are a few “holes” in our component’s design.

What would happen if you wanted to wrap any of the sub-components in another component, or even a simple div? This seems like a logical choice a developer would make. Give it a shot. Wrap Chat.Button in a div. What happens?

The component still renders, however if you try to send a message nothing happens. But why? We cloned Chat.Button and passed it the onClick prop, did we not?

No, in this scenario we didn’t, because Chat.Button is no longer a direct child of Chat. That seat is now held by the innocent looking div element. This is where the limitations of React.Children.map begin to show. If you really want to craft a flexible compound component, you’ll have to take things a step further (more below).

Conclusion#

Let’s take a step back and review:

  • We learned about static properties and how they allow us to use the dot-notation syntax with sub-components.
  • We learned about certain utilities the React API provides like React.Children.map and React.cloneElement.
  • We learned how to identify specific children using the displayName property.
  • We used all of this information to craft a flexible compound component that manages its own state and inverts layout control to the user.

In the next post we will address the drawbacks of React.Children.map by refactoring Chat to use the Context API, giving us the ability to pass data to any child no matter their level in the component tree.