What does a good API look like?

I’m temporarily unemployed — my longest period of not having to work every day since I was laid off by Valuclick in 2010 — so I’m catching up on my rants. This rant is shaped by recent experiences I had during my recent job interview process (I was interviewed by two Famous Silicon Valley Companies, one of which hired me and the other of which “didn’t think I was a good fit”). Oddly enough, the company that hired me interviewed me in an API-agnostic (indeed almost language-agnostic) way while the company that didn’t interviewed me in terms of my familiarity with an API created by the other company (which they apparently are using religiously; although maybe not so much following recent layoffs).

Anyway, the API in question is very much in vogue in the Javascript / Web Front End world, in much the same way as CoffeeScript and Angular were a couple of years ago. (Indeed, the same bunch of people who were switching over to Angular a few years back have recently been switching over to this API, which is funny to watch). And this API and the API it has replaced in terms of mindshare is in large part concerned with a very common problem in UI programming.

A Very Common Problem in UI Programming

Probably the single most common problem in UI programming is synchronizing data with the user interface, or “binding”. There are three fundamental things almost any user-facing program has to do:

  • Populate the UI with data you have when (or, better, before) the UI first appears on screen
  • Keep the UI updated with data changed elsewhere (e.g. data that changes over time)
  • Update the data with changes made by the user

This stuff needs to be done, it’s boring to do, it often gets churned a lot (there are constant changes made to a UI and the data it needs to sync with in the course of any real project). So it’s nice if this stuff isn’t a total pain to do. Even better if it’s pretty much automatic for simple cases.

The Javascript API in question addresses a conspicuous failing of Javascript given its role as “the language of the web”. In fact almost everything good and bad about it stems from its addressing this issue. What’s this issue? It’s the difficulty of dealing with HTML text. If you look at Perl, PHP, and JSP, the three big old server-side web-programming languages, each handles this particular issue very well. The way I used to look at it was:

  • A perl script tends to look like a bunch of code with snippets of HTML embedded in it.
  • A PHP script tends to look like a web page with snippets of code embedded in it.
  • A JSP script tends to look like a web page with horrible custom tags and/or snippets of code embedded in it.

If you’re trying to solve a simple problem like get data from your database and stick it in your dynamic web page, you end up writing that web page the way you normally would (as bog standard HTML) and just putting a little something where you want your data to be and maybe some supporting code elsewhere. E.g. in PHP you might write “<p>{$myDate}</p>” while in  JSP you’d write something like “<p><%= myDate %></p>”. These all look similar, do similar things, and make sense.

It’s perfectly possible to defy these natural tendencies, e.g. write a page that has little or no HTML in it and just looks like a code file, but this is pretty much how many projects start out.

Javascript, in comparison, is horrible at dealing with HTML. You either end up building strings manually “<p>” + myDate + “</p>” which gets old fast for anything non-trivial, or you manipulate the DOM directly, either through the browser’s APIs, having first added metadata to your existing HTML, e.g. you’d change “<p></p>” to “<p id=”myDate”></p>” and then write “document.getElementById(‘myDate’).text = myDate;” in a script tag somewhere else.

The common solution to this issue is to use a template language implemented in Javascript (there are approximately 1.7 bazillion of them, as there is of anything involving Javascript) which allow you to write something like “<p>{{myDate}}</p>” and then do something like “Populate(slabOfHtml, {myDate: myDate});” in the simplest case (cue discussion about code injection). The net effect is you’re writing non-standard HTML and using a possibly obscure and flawed library to manipulate markup written in this non-standard HTML (…code injection). You may also be paying a huge performance penalty because depending on how things work, updating the page may involve regenerating its HTML and getting the browser to parse it again, which can suck — especially with huge tables (or, worse, huge slabs of highly styled DIVs pretending to be tables). OTOH you can use lots of jQuery to populate your DOM-with-metadata fairly efficiently, but this tends to be even worse for large updates.

The API in question solves this problem by uniting non-standard HTML and non-standard Javascript in a single new language that’s essentially a mashup of XML and Javascript that compiles into pure Javascript and [re]builds the DOM from HTML efficiently and in a fine-grained manner. So now you kind of need to learn a new language and an unfamiliar API.

My final interview with the company that did not hire me involved doing a “take home exam” where I was asked to solve a fairly open-ended problem using this API, for which I had to actually learn this API. The problem essentially involved: getting data from a server, displaying a table of data, allowing the user to see detail on a row item, and allowing the user to page through the table.

Having written a solution using this unfamiliar API, it seemed very verbose and clumsy, so I tried to figure out what I’d done wrong. I tried to figure out what the idiomatic way to do things using this API was and refine them. Having spent a lot of spare time on this exercise (and I was more-than-fully-employed at the time) it struck me that the effort I was spending to learn the API, and to hone my implementation, were far greater than the effort required to implement the same solution using an API I had written myself. So, for fun, I did that too.

Obviously, I had much less trouble using my API. Obviously, I had fewer bugs. Obviously I had no issues writing idiomatic code.

But, here’s the thing. Writing idiomatic code wasn’t actually making my original code shorter or more obvious. It was just more idiomatic.

To bind an arbitary data object to the DOM with my API, the code you write looks like this:


The complex case looks like this:

$(<some-selector>).bindomatic(<data-object>, <options-object>);

Assuming you’re familiar with the idioms of jQuery, there’s nothing new to learn here. The HTML you bind to needs to be marked up with metadata in a totally standard way (intended to make immediate sense even to people who’ve never seen my code before), e.g. to bind myDate to a particular paragraph you might write: “<p data-source=”.myDate”></p>”. If you wanted to make the date editable by the user and synced to the original data object, you would write: “<input data-bind=”.myDate”>”. The only complaints I’ve had about my API are about the “.” part (and I somewhat regret it). Actually the syntax is data-source=”myData.myDate” where “myData” is simply an arbitrary word used to refer to the original bound object. I had some thoughts of actually directly binding to the object by name, somehow, when I wrote the API, but Javascript doesn’t make that easy.

In case you’re wondering, the metadata for binding tabular data looks like this: “<tr data-repeat=”.someTable”><td data-source=”.someField”></td></tr>”.

My code was leaner, far simpler, to my mind far more “obvious”, and ran faster than the code using this other, famous and voguish, API. There’s also no question my API is far simpler. Oh, and also, my library solves all three of the stated problems — you do have to tell it if you have changes in your object that need to be synced to the UI — (without polluting the source object with new fields, methods, etc.) while this other library — not-so-much.

So — having concluded that a programming job that entailed working every day with the second API would be very annoying — I submitted both my “correct” solution and the simpler, faster, leaner solution to the second company and there you go. I could have been laid off by now!

Here’s my idea of what a good API looks like

  • It should be focused on doing one thing and one thing well.
  • It should only require that the programmer tell it something it can’t figure out for itself and hasn’t been told before.
  • It should be obvious (or as obvious as possible) how it works.
  • It should have sensible defaults
  • It should make simple things ridiculously easy, and complex things possible (in other words, its simplicity shouldn’t handcuff a programmer who wants to fine-tune performance, UX, and so on.

XCode and Swift

I don’t know if the binding mechanisms in Interface Builder seemed awesome back in 1989, but today — with all the improvements in both Interface Builder and the replacement of Objective-C with the (potentially) far cleaner Swift — they seem positively medieval to me, combining the worst aspects of automatic-code-generation “magic” and telling the left hand what the left hand is doing.

Let’s go back to the example of sticking myDate into a the UI somewhere. IB doesn’t really have “paragraphs” (unless you embed HTML) so let’s stick it in a label. Supposing you have a layout created in IB, the way you’re taught — as a newb — to do it this is:

  1. In XCode, drag from your label in IB to the view controller source code (oh, step 0 is to make sure both relevant things are visible)
  2. You’ll be asked to name the “outlet”, and then XCode will automagically write this code: @IBOutlet weak var myDate: UILabel!
  3. Now, in — say — the already-written-for-you viewDidLoad method of the controller you can write something like: myDate.text = _myDate (it can’t be myDate because you’re used myDate to hold the outlet reference).

Congratulations, you have now solved one of the three problems. That’s two lines of code, one generated by magic, the other containing no useful information, that you’ve written to get one piece of data from your controller to your view.

Incidentally, let’s suppose I wanted to change the outlet name from “myDate” to “dateLabel”. How do I do that? Well, you can delete the outlet and create a new outlet from scratch using the above process, and then change the code referencing the outlet. Is there another way? Not that I know of.

And how to we solve the other two problems?

Let’s suppose we’d in fact bound to an input field. So now my outlet looks like this: @IBOutlet weak var myDate: UITextField! (the “!” is semantically significant, not me getting excited).

  1. In XCode, drag from the field in IB to the view controller source code.
  2. Now, instead of creating an outlet, you select Action, and you make sure the type is UITextField, and change the event to ValueChanged.
  3. In the automatically-just-written-for-you Action code add the code _myDate = sender.text!

You’re now solved the last of the three problems. You’ve had a function written for you automagically, and you’ve written one line of retarded code. That’s three more lines of code (and one new function) to support your single field. And that’s two different things that require messing with the UI during a refactor or if a property name gets changed.

OK, what about the middle problem? That’s essentially a case of refactoring the original code so that you can call it whenever you like. So, for example, you write a showData method, call it from viewDidLoad, and then call it when you have new data.

Now, this is all pretty ugly in basic Javascript too. (And it was even uglier until browsers added documentQuerySelector.) The point is that it’s possible to make it very clean. How to do this in Swift / XCode?

Javascript may not have invented the hash as a fundamental data type, but it certainly popularized it. Swift, like most recent languages, provides dictionaries as a basic type. Dictionaries are God’s gift to people writing binding libraries. That said, Swift’s dictionaries are strongly typed which leads to a lot of teeth gnashing.

Our goal is to be able to write something like:


It would be even cooler to be able to round-trip JSON (the way my Javascript binding library can). So if this works we can probably integrate a decent JSON library.

So the things we need are:

  • Key-value-pair data storage, i.e. dictionaries — check!
  • The ability to add some kind of metadata to the UI
  • The ability to find stuff in the UI using this metadata

This doesn’t seem too intimidating until you consider some of the difficulty involved in binding data to IB.


The way tables are implemented in Cocoa is actually pretty awesome. In essence, Cocoa tables (think lists, for now) are generated minimally and managed efficiently by the following mechanism:

The minimum number of rows is generated to fill the available space.

When the user scrolls the table, new rows are created as necessary, and old rows disposed of. But, to make it even more efficient rather than disposing of unused rows, they are kept in a pool and reallocated as needed — so the row that scrolls off the top as you scroll down is reused to draw the row that just scrolled into view. (It’s more complex and clever than this — e.g. rows can be of different types, and each type is pooled separately — but that’s the gist.) This may seem like overkill when you’re trying to stick ten things in a list, but it’s ridiculously awesome when you’re trying to display a list of 30,000 songs on your first generation iPhone.

In order for this to work, there’s a tableDelegate protocol. The minimal implementation of this is that you need to tell the table how many rows of data you have and populate a row when you’re asked to.

So, for each table you’re dealing with you need to provide a delegate that knows what’s supposed to go in that specific table. Ideally, I just want to do something like self.bind(data) in the viewDidLoad method, how do I create and hook up the necessary delegates? It’s even worse if I want to use something like RootViewController (e.g. for a paged display) which is fiddly to set up even manually. But, given how horrible all this stuff is to deal with in vanilla Swift/Cocoa, that’s just how awesome it will be not to have to do any of it ever again if I can do this. Not only that, but to implement this I’m going to need to understand the ugly stuff really well.


Adding Metadata to IB Objects

The first problem is figuring out some convenient way of attaching metadata to IB elements (e.g. buttons, text fields, and so on). After a lot of spelunking, I concluded that my first thought (to use the accessibilityIdentifier field) turns out to be the most practical (even though, as we shall see, it has issues).

There are oodles of different, promising-looking fields associated with elements in IB, e.g. you can set a label (which appears in the view hierarchy, making the control easy to find). This would be perfect, but as far as I could tell it isn’t actually accessible at runtime. There’s also User Defined Runtime Attributes which are a bit fiddly to add and edit, but worse, as far as I’ve been able to tell, safely accessing them is a pain in the ass (i.e. if you simply ask for a property by name and it’s not there — crash!). So, unless I get a clue, no cigar for now.

The nice thing about the accessibilityIdentifier is that it looks like it’s OK for it to be non-unique (so you can bind the same value to more than one place) and it can be directly edited (you don’t need to create a property, and then set its name, set its type as you do for User Defined Runtime Attributes). The downside is that some things — UITableViews in particular — don’t have them. (Also, presumably, they have an impact on accessibility, but it seems to me like that shouldn’t be a problem if you use sensible names.)

So my first cut of automatic binding for Swift/Cocoa took a couple of hours and handled UITextField and UILabel.

class Bindery: NSObject {
    var view: UIView!
    var data: [String: AnyObject?]!
    init(view v:UIView, data dict:[String: AnyObject?]){
        view = v
        data = dict
    func subviews(name: String) -> [UIView] {
        var found: [UIView] = []
        for v in view!.subviews {
            if v.accessibilityIdentifier == name {
        return found
    @IBAction func valueChanged(sender: AnyObject?){
        var key: String? = nil
        if sender is UIView {
            key = sender!.accessibilityIdentifier
            if !data.keys.contains(key!) {
        if sender is UITextField {
            let field = sender as? UITextField
            data[key!] = field!.text
    func updateKey(key: String){
        let views = subviews(key)
        let value = data[key]
        for v in views {
            if v is UILabel {
                let label = v as? UILabel
                label!.text = value! is String ? value as! String : ""
            else if v is UITextField {
                let field = v as? UITextField
                field!.text = value! is String ? value as! String : ""
                field!.addTarget(self, action: "valueChanged:", forControlEvents: .EditingDidEnd)
    func update() -> Bindery {
        for key in (data?.keys)! {
        return self

Usage is pretty close to my ideal with one complication (this code is inside the view controller):

    var binder: Bindery
    var data:[String: AnyObject?] = [
        "name": "Anne Example",
        "sex": "female"

    override func viewDidLoad() {
        // Do any additional setup after loading the view, typically from a nib.
        binder = Bindery(view:self.view, data: data).update()

If you look closely, I have to call update() from the new Bindery instance to make things work. This is because Swift doesn’t let me refer to self inside an initializer (I assume this is designed to avoid possible issues with computed properties, or to encourage programmers to not put heavy lifting in the main thread… or something). Anyway it’s not exactly terrible (and I could paper over the issue by adding a class convenience method).

OK, so what about tables?

Well I figure tables will need their own special binding class (which I shockingly call TableBindery) and implement it so that you need to use an outlet (or some other hard reference to the table) and then I use Bindery to populate each cell (this lets you create a cell prototype visually and then bind to it with almost no work). This is how that ends up looking like this (I won’t bore you with the implementation which is pretty straightforward once I worked out that a table cell has a child view that contains all of its contents, and how to convert a [String: String] into a [String: AnyObject?]):

    var data:[String: AnyObject?] = [
        "name": "Anne Example",
        "sex": "female"
    override func viewDidLoad() {
        tableBinder = TableBindery(table:table, array: tableData).update()

In the course of getting this working, I discover that the prototype cells do have an accessibilityIdentifier, so it might well be possible to spelunk the table at runtime and identify bindings by using the attributes of the table’s children. The fact is, though, that tables — especially the sophisticated multi-section tables that Cocoa allows — probably need to be handled a little more manually than HTML tables usually do, and having to write a line or two of code to populate a table is not too bad.

Now imagine if Bindery supported all the common controls, provided a protocol for allowing custom controls to be bound, and then imagine an analog of TableBindery for handling Root view controllers. This doesn’t actually look like a particularly huge undertaking, and I already feel much more confident dealing with Cocoa’s nasty underbelly than I was this morning.

And, finally, if I really wanted to provide a self.bindData convenience function — Swift and Cocoa make this very easy. I’d simply extend UIView.