Partially Controlled Components: A Declarative Design Pattern in React

A common distinction in React is Controlled vs Uncontrolled components. But the real world is not so black and white…

To summarize:

I recently authored a tree view React component called react-arborist. After working on a complex component like this I felt the absence of a necessary concept in our React community.

Partially Controlled Components ✨'

You’ve felt it too? Let’s get into this.

Gradually Controllable Complex Components

As a library author, I want the “Getting Started " experience to be dead simple.

<Tree initialData={myData} />

By default, the component takes care of everything internally: selection, drag-and-drop, and renaming. As it integrates into an app, users can take control of only the parts they need. Common needs are persisting the state, initializing the state, or changing the tree from elsewhere in the app.

Declarative vs Imperative Control

There are only two ways to control a component from the outside:

  1. Attaching a Ref (imperative)
  2. Providing Props (declarative)

Let’s look at some real world component libraries to showcase these two approaches.

Imperative Control in react-resizable-panes

First we will examine react-resizable-panes, a promising new React component library by Brian Vaughn. The Panel component is uncontrolled by default (win), and provides a ref handle to control it from the outside.

import {Panel} from "react-resizable-panels";


function MyApp() {
	const ref = useRef(null);

  const onClick = () => {
		ref.current?.collapse();
  };

  return (
    ...
    <Panel collapsible ref={ref}>
      ...
    </Panel>
    ...
    <button onClick={onClick}>Collapse</button>
	)
}

We can control the collapsible state from the outside by calling the collapse() method on the Panel’s imperative handle.

Declarative Control in Tanstack Table

In the React version of tanstack-table, the go-to component library for everything tabular, Tanner Linsley allows us to partially control the state of our table by passing arguments to the useReactTable hook.

His library only provides a hook and leaves rendering for us, but this is essentially passing props to a component. When the arguments to the hook change, React will re-render our table.

const table = useReactTable({
  data,
  columns,
  state: {
    columnVisibility, // visibility value
    columnOrder, // order value
  },
  onColumnVisibilityChange: setColumnVisibility, // visibility setter
  onColumnOrderChange: setColumnOrder, // order setter
});

Look at that partial control! I really think he’s onto something. Since the component/hook does so many things, the state is divided into logical slices. Each slice can either be controlled or uncontrolled depending on the presence of an on[SliceName]Change handler. I love this pattern. However, to me, its undesirable that the value and change handler are not co-located. It is also a bit verbose. But it is declarative and much more “React”.

API Inspiration from React Input Elements

Let’s get back to our roots. The basic React <input /> element is where the concept of controlled/uncontrolled components was born. The React authors decided on this API:

1. Uncontrolled

<input />

2. Uncontrolled with an initial value

<input defaultValue="hello" />

3. Controlled

<input value={value} onChange={(e) => setValue(e.currentTarget.value)} />

A Declarative Pattern for Partially Controlled Components

Let’s expand on all the patterns we saw above and design a new API for partially controlled components. We’ll use react-arborist as an example use case.

Use Case 1: A user wants control over just the tree’s selection state.

const [selection, setSelection] = useState(initial());

return (
  <Tree
    selectionState={{
      value: selection,
      onChange: (state) => setSelection(state),
    }}
  />
);

Use Case 2: They want to control the editing state as well.

<Tree
  selectionState={{
    value: selection,
    onChange: (state) => setSelection(state)
  }}
  editingState={{
    value: editing
    onChange: (state) => setEditing(state)
  }}
/>

Use Case 3: Provide only an initial state for which nodes are expanded/collapsed?

<Tree
  selectionState={{
    value: selection,
    onChange: (state) => setSelection(state)
  }}
  editingState={{
    value: editing
    onChange: (state) => setEditing(state)
  }}
  expandedState={{
    defaultValue: expanded
  }}
/>

Use Case 4: Control all the state in a Redux store.

const treeState = useSelector(MyApp.selectTreeState);
const dispatch = useDispatch();

return (
  <Tree
    rootState={{
      value: treeState,
      onChange: (state) => dispatch(MyApp.setTreeState(state),
    }}
  />
);

Each logical group of state has its own prop object for users to control. The presence of this prop indicates to the component that its state slice will be managed externally.

I like this pattern for a few reasons.

What’s Next?

What do you think of this design? Depending on your feedback, I may make this the API in version 4 of react-arborist.

Curious how one would implement an API like this? Keep a lookout for part two!