Two Talking Maybes is Maybe Too Many

Published September 26, 2016 · 4 Minute Read · ∞ Permalink

Richard Feldman spoke two weeks ago at the first elm-conf. (it went quite well, thank you for asking!) He pointed out something as a code smell that’s been bothering me for a while. I want to emphasize it, so go ahead and watch the recording and then we’ll talk about it. It’s only 25 minutes and well worth your time:

Right, you’re back?

The second example in his talk is a status bar. We’re working with survey questions here, and we want to be able to undo. The undo button lives up in the status bar and lets us un-delete questions. Richard ends up with this starter code:

type alias Model =
    { status : Maybe String
    , questionToRestore : Maybe SurveyQuestion

But, he points out, this model has a problem! What if questionToRestore is Just thing and status is Nothing? It doesn’t make sense for our status bar to have something to restore without a message.

Is this a problem with Elm? Hardly! It’s a problem with our data model. And, as Richard also points out in his talk:

Richard Feldman presenting at elm-conf. 'A clearer data model can lead to a clearer API' is displayed on a slide.

A clearer data model can lead to a clearer API

In other words, making sure the data model represents exactly (and only) the states we can deal with is a great way to make our usage clearer. (In fact, this removal of impossible states is his main point! You’ve watched the talk already, right? Right?)

Anyway! Like all good speakers do, Richard solves the problem:

type Status
    = NoStatus
    | TextStatus String
    | DeletedStatus String SurveyQuestion

With the proper data modeling, the problem just goes away. Now we can’t have a mismatch between the two Maybe types because they don’t exist! We can’t have a DeletedStatus without both text and a question, so the model can no longer be in an invalid state. Changing the data model has eliminated the impossible state.

So what’s the takeaway?

So how can we take this and apply it generally? There’s so much in this talk, but one big thing I’m taking away is that if we have two Maybe types that interact there’s something smelly going on. We’ve talked about this kind of thing before when we were deduplicating scientists: any time you share state between two fields, you need to make it difficult for those fields to get out of sync. In this case, I’d like to propose this code smell in a new way:

Two Talking Maybes is Maybe Too Many

In other words, when you have two Maybes interacting, find out how you can get rid of that interaction as soon as you can. I’m going back and looking at my code to figure out if there are any places where I can do exactly that; you should too!

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