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Machine Learning : Article

Event-Driven Web Application Design

"The era of boring web sites is over !"

A Problem of Approach

The sad truth now is that both approaches often lead to hard-to-maintain products that don’t scale gracefully and are a pain to make accessible, localise to different languages or customise to different needs and channels. This is caused by false assumptions made by practitioners of both approaches:

  • The framework approach relies on a silver bullet and approaches web development with fat-client application ideals from higher programming languages like Java or C++. This does not take into consideration the fact that web development is a discipline that operates with great uncertainties regarding the nature of client-side hardware and software. Optimization has to be for the user and not for the developer (although these don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive).
  • The web standards approach would not be a problem at all if people would follow standards with the goal of making things easier by following an agreed approach and not see following the words of the W3C to the last detail as the only way to do things. Web standards are there to take the randomness out of web development and not to act as a policing tool.

The crux of the matter is that we don’t really yet understand how to build a real web application. We take tried and true methodologies that cover other development scenarios and try to shoe-horn them into something that helps us to achieve what we want on-time and within budget (and when was the last time that happened?).

The other problem is that we approach web application design with browser limitations in mind and plan only for what browsers can do rather than what the application should offer the user.

When it boils down to it, the main differentiator of a web application and a web site is that an app has much more interaction and is process-focused rather than content-driven. Users come in to achieve a goal: They provide data to the application, they use the application to enhance that data, and then they expect data to come out. They interact with components of the application and expect them to do something that brings them closer to their goal. It is of utmost importance that we plan for how users interact with the product and react accordingly.

When trying to accomplish this in the browser, there is one core technique at our disposal: Event handling.

Understanding Events

We must try to understand what an event is when it comes to user interaction through the duration of a user session.

Events as defined by the W3C are very complex and can be tough to understand. However, the most common way of thinking about events in JavaScript is:

  • Something happens to an element, to the main document, or to the browser window and that event triggers a reaction. For example, the window finishes loading and on that event we start an initialization method; or the user clicks a link and we use that event to trigger another function.

Most framework-generated code or even handcoded methods use this kind of event handling. We take the window, or a certain element and add handlers defining the event that should trigger a function. This leads to a rigid relationship between the markup and the functionality. As the interface of a web application might change (more links in a component, other buttons, more complex forms) this need to add more cruft begins to cripple our applications. It also means that maintenance must happen in two places — a change to our HTML means that our JavaScript needs to change, too.

The DOM Event Model however goes a bit further. It has a more granular definition of the workflow:

  • Something happens; an event occurs.
  • The investigation begins what element was activated and how. This happens by questioning each element from the window to the body to the first child node and so on until the element that was activated, the event target, is reached. This is called event capturing.
  • When the element is reached, the process of reporting goes back up through the DOM right back up to the window. This is called event bubbling.
  • You can intercept events on both legs of this journey at any time by adding event listeners to either the window or any of the objects that get queried. Event listeners define what event to look out for (click, keypress, load, mousedown…), the object to which the handler should be applied, and what method to call when it happens.
  • You can stop events from going back up to the window by calling a cancelEvent() method and you can retrieve the object the event occurred on, the event target, with a helper method called getTarget().
  • You can add as many listeners waiting for as many different events and each calling as many methods as you like.

Understanding and implementing this event model can free your application from the constraints of defined elements. For example, instead of applying an event listener for each link in a menu, you can assign a single listener to the menu item itself and retrieve the event target. That way you don’t need to change your script when the menu gets larger or when links get removed from it.

This is a very powerful and flexible approach often referred to as event delegation. Event delegation allows you to react to changes in the document while applying fewer event listeners. You can assign different handlers to different parts of your document (the menu, the main content, a sidebar, a language change menu) and define methods for each event (was it clicked? was a key pressed on it?). These methods then retrieve the element that was affected and react accordingly; for example, you can react differently for links versus buttons.

When using this idea (waiting for an event, investigating where it happens and acting accordingly) in web applications we mostly confine ourselves to what the browser reports us — the DOM events. This is not really necessary, and it’s a big limitation. Much that happens in an application — like a user switching between tabs in a TabView Control — could be thought of as an event and dealt with in the same manner.

More Stories By Christian Heilmann

Christian Heilmann is the author of 'Beginning JavaScript with DOM Scripting and AJAX' and he contributed a chapter on accessible JavaScript to Web Accessibility: Web Standards and Regulatory Compliance. He has worked in web development for almost 9 years for several agencies and .coms, is currently a lead developer at Yahoo! in England. Chris blogs at http://wait-till-i.com.

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