React Lessons for Newcomers

At 20spokes, developers spend a roughly equal amount of time between Ruby on Rails and React. While we enjoy working in both frameworks, they are quite different in approach, and going from a Rails way of thinking to a React way of thinking can be an adjustment.

One major way in which these frameworks are different is that Rails takes care of a lot of architectural issues that React leaves open for interpretation. Coming from a Rails background, I found the openness of React to be a bit anxiety-inducing at first, but I've come to really embrace it, because it's forced me to think more carefully than ever about how other developers would approach my code.

As a team, we've also considered what our best practices should be towards React, as we all want to make our code understandable and friendly to anyone who encounters it. To that end, below is a (growing) list of our approaches to making our React projects not only maintainable, but enjoyable to work with.

Be relentless with components

The basic building block of React is the component. To those new to React, they can best be thought of as modules.

As a developer, I start to get nervous when I see large components that perform various functions. The solution to keeping your files short and sweet is to take every opportunity to break your objects into re-useable components. Having larger components may not seem like a big deal when starting a project from scratch, but if you relentlessly component-ize you'll thank yourself as your project grows.

There are some code smells to recognize when you should create new components. If you see lots of groups of markup within a single div, those groups should probably be their own component.

If we have lots of renderXXX functions within in one component that render more markup, that's usually a code-smell that whatever is being returned from those functions should be their own component.

Make components as reusable as possible by passing dynamic data as props.

Privilege functional components over class-based ones

In many cases, it's overkill to Use React's Component class for every component you create. Not all components need access to the Lifecycle Methods or local state that Component provides. Start with stateless functional components and turn them into React Component instances as needed.

Take advantage of PropTypes

We started the practice of listing out PropTypes at the bottom of every component, so other developers can quickly reference what props are needed or optional. Oftentimes, we'd investigate what data we should expect in a component by looking up examples of that component elsewhere in the codebase. This easily can be avoided by using PropTypes, which provide a quick way to see what data is being passed, and of what type that data should be. Here's an example from our reusable Button component:

Button.propTypes = {  
  text: PropTypes.string.isRequired,
  onPress: PropTypes.func.isRequired,
  disabled: PropTypes.bool,
  icon: PropTypes.string,

We're pointing this out because, while Facebook already notes it as a best practice in their documentation, it's something that's easy to skip over or forget to do. But for something that's not hard to do at all, it provides a lot of value when developing and maintaining your app.

Use Lifecycle Methods with care

Despite being incredibly powerful, lifecycle methods (like ComponentDidUpdate) can cause a lot of headaches to those new to React. Be careful when updating state or props within these methods, as it may cause infinite looping.

For this reason, I prefer to place lifecycle methods at the very top of a component declaration, so I can see all of that logic together when debugging.

Check out part 2 of this series, Redux Lessons for Newcomers.