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React Hooks: `useImperativeHandle`

An Escape Hatch When Rewrites Aren't Feasible

I recently had to ask myself and ultimately google, "how can a parent component call its child's method" and discovered a solution using React's useImperativeHandle hook. When initially reading the documentation about this hook, I was annoyed to see that the example and explanation given were quite contrived, so I thought I'd share my experience in the hopes that others find it useful as well.

Background

For context, the React application I'm helping to develop is a content management system, or CMS. The CMS is used by content creators, providing them with tools to create interactive kids shows. In programmer speak, the CMS is essentially a UI for performing CRUD operations on the various entities involved such as channels, playlists, and episodes.

Our React app has several Form components that are reused for both creating and updating entities. Design specified creating entities by displaying a modal with the form as the main body content. On the other hand, updating an entity is not done via form-in-modal but rather in a regular page.

Here's a simplified version of the ChannelForm, which is used to create and update creator channels.

/* ChannelForm.jsx—updating logic removed for simplicity */
import React, { useState } from 'react'
import { create } from 'components/forms/utils'

const ChannelForm = () => {
  const [name, setName] = useState('')
  const [description, setDescription] = useState('')

  const submit = async () => {
    const newChannel = await create({
      path: '/channels',
      attributes,
      obj: channelDetails,
    })
    window.location.href = `/channels/${newChannel.channelId}`
  }

  return (
    <form>
      <label>
        Name
        <input value={name} onChange={(e) => setName(e.target.value)} />
      </label>
      <label>
        Description
        <input
          value={description}
          onChange={(e) => setDescription(e.target.value)}
        />
      </label>
      <button type="submit">Create Channel</button>
    </form>
  )
}

export default ChannelForm

What's important to note about said Form components is that all the business logic (form submission methods for creating or updating entities) as well as the state used by the form itself all reside in the components themselves. I'll note later why this is important but just keep this in mind as you read along.

Task

With the background out of the way, allow me to discuss the task I was given to get me to where I am now. The ticket was titled "Unify Modal Designs" and described how all the modals throughout the CMS should be unified, i.e. having the same look and feel.

At the time, there were two modal designs: a header- and footer-less modal, usually containing a form, and a modal with colored header and footer sections with the footer having action buttons, usually "Cancel" and "Create" or "Save." The ticket wanted all modals to have the colored headers and footers with the footers having action buttons in order to have a more uniformed UX across the CMS.

Challenge

Like most tasks I'm given, I like to plan out how I will implement the feature and research anything that I'm unfamiliar with. This task was no different so the first thing I did was perform a global search of the CMS codebase to see what modals we had and noted any that would need to be updated.

I soon realized that the modals which did not already follow the designs were the modals that contained our previously-discussed Form components. That's when it dawned on me: How was I going to hook-up the modal's primary action button ("Create", "Save", etc.) with the Form component's submission handler method?

React is driven by a concept called one-way data flow. That means any state that a child component needs to know about and/or use resides higher up in the component tree and is passed down as props. Going back to our modal and form example, this begs the question, "how can a parent component access a stateful child's data and methods?"

This is where the important note I wanted you to keep in mind comes into play. The "right" thing to do would be to refactor the Form components so that all business logic and state for the form fields is extracted and instead imported or passed in as props. As an early-stage startup where speed and functionality are prioritized over efficiency/quality, this approach was just not feasible.

We needed an alternate approach that was as frictionless as possible.

Solution

Enter the useImperativeHandle hook. From the React docs:

useImperativeHandle customizes the instance value that is exposed to parent components when using ref.

Before moving forward, I suggest you familiarize yourself with React refs if you aren't already.

The key here is we are able to customize the instance value of the ref exposed to the parent component by specifying whatever data we want when the ref is created. That means we can use this hook to create a bidirectional data flow, allowing the parent component access to its child's data and methods.

There are only a few steps that we need to take in order to get our existing code working as intended.

  1. Wrap our child component (in this case, the Form component) in forwardRef per the React docs.
/* ChannelForm.jsx */
import React, { useState, forwardRef, useImperativeHandle } from 'react'

/**
 * When form is wrapped in `forwardRef` and uses the `useImperativeHandle` hook,
 * the parent component then has access to whatever data is selectively exposed.
 */
const ChannelForm = forwardRef((props, ref) => {
  const submit = async () => {}

  return (
    <form></form>
  )
})
  1. Use the useImperativeHandle hook to expose the methods we want the parent component to have access to. In our form-in-modal scenario, we need the parent component (Modal) to have access to the Form's submit method.
/* ChannelForm.jsx */
import React, { useState, forwardRef, useImperativeHandle } from 'react'

/**
 * When form is wrapped in `forwardRef` and uses the `useImperativeHandle` hook,
 * the parent component then has access to whatever data is selectively exposed.
 */
const ChannelForm = forwardRef((props, ref) => {
  const submit = async () => {}

  useImperativeHandle(ref, () => ({ submit }))

  return (
    <form></form>
  )
})
  1. In the parent component, create and pass a ref to the Form child. Accessing the child's exposed data is as easy as calling ref.current.<property-name>.
/* Modal.jsx */
import React, { useRef } from 'react'
import ReactModal from 'react-modal'

const Modal = ({ title, footerButtons, formNode }) => {
  const formRef = useRef()
  const Form = formNode

  const [isOpen, setIsOpen] = useState(false)

  const handleSubmit = async () => {
    await formRef.current.submit() // we can now call Form's `submit` method ✨
    setIsOpen(false)
  }

  return (
    <ReactModal isOpen={isOpen}>
      <header>
        <h1>{title}</h1>
      </header>
      <main>
        <Form ref={formRef} />
      </main>
      <footer>
        <button onClick={() => setIsOpen(false)}>Cancel</button>
        <button onClick={handleSubmit}>Create</button>
      </footer>
    </ReactModal>
  )
}

Conclusion

To recap, the useImperativeHandle hook allows us to customize the instance value of the ref, effectively giving us the ability to create a bidirectional data flow from child to parent.

This doesn't fit React's modus operandi, so using this hook in this fashion should be avoided when possible. It's good to know that such a possibility does exist, however, in the case that you do need an escape hatch when a large rewrite is not feasible.

P.S. - What the heck does imperative mean?

If you're like me, you might have had trouble making sense of this particular hook's name. I still don't know well enough to explain it myself, but luckily Tyler McGinnis has written an excellent blog post on what imperative programming is (which is where the hook's name comes from).

Cedric Amaya

Written by Cedric Amaya, a software engineer who enjoys occasionally taking a break from coding to write about what is on his mind. You should follow him on Twitter.