DRYing markup using block-accepting helpers

As much as we all strive to write perfect, semantic XHTML that can be styled entirely independently, the reality of browser compatibility and even our own creative choices often leads to design refactoring. Obviously in Rails one big help for this is the use of partials, making sure that you can change your markup in one place and it will be reflected for often-repeated content. But what about for lower-level, underlying layout structure? Nested partials quickly become a mess to deal with, and traditional helpers don’t always offer the flexibility and intelligence that is needed to get the job done.

Enter block-accepting helpers. These allow you to wrap markup around content without the ugliness of a my_thing_start and my_thing_end. With a little more work, they can also provide an intelligent layout structure that requires minimal (and beautiful) code in the view. Let’s start with a simple example. Lets say that most, but not all, of the pages in my app have a similar container and title. Creating multiple layouts using partials for everything just to add or not add a couple of lines of code is way too heavy. On the other hand, my designers want the flexibility to change how the container is represented in markup, so I can’t just throw the markup into each action. Here’s the markup I want (for now):

This is obviously pretty basic, and wouldn’t be a big deal to change if the design changed, but this is just an example. If you’re dealing with some kind of nested div rounded corner solution, or any number of other necessary CSS/markup hacks to get the look you desire, it could become quite a chore. So how do we create our DRY helper? Primarily through the use of the concat method in the ActionView::Helpers::TextHelper module. Here’s my helper (just put this in either the relevant helper or ApplicationHelper:

So that wasn’t so bad, was it? Now in our views all we have to do to get our main_container is:

Cool, huh? There are other resources that dig much deeper into blocks, procs, and the ruby wonderfulness going on behind the scenes, but this is purely a functional demonstration. Suffice to say that placing a &block (or &proc or whatever you want to call it) as the last parameter of a method allows that method to accept a block and later yield to it. The yield statement works much the way it does in layouts, passing code execution for a time and then getting it back when the yielded code is finished.

Do make note that, like form_for, you do not use the <%= but just <% when declaring your block. This is because you aren’t returning anything, but rather directly concatenating code onto the binding passed when you make the block call.

Now that was certainly useful, but doesn’t really have that ‘wow’ factor that really makes you appreciate a new way of doing things. Let’s take a stab at another common problem in app design: menu systems. Using block-accepting helpers and introducing the concept of a builder class, we can build menus intelligently and easily.

The implementation you are probably already familiar with of this type of class is the FormBuilder used in form_for. We will take that same concept and apply it to menus on a web application, taking care of a number of common headaches associated with menus. Here’s the whole enchilada, and we’ll go through it piece by piece. This code should be dropped into a helper:

So that should look at least somewhat familiar, right? Here’s a sample implementation so that we can talk about what’s going on:

So in just a few readable lines of code, we’ve done all we need for a pretty complex menu. However, because of our helper, all of the complexities are going on behind the scenes! So let’s talk about our helpers. The actual helper that we call is very similar to the one we made earlier with one difference: rather than yielding with no parameters, we yielded a MenuBuilder object, which was then called in the yielded code to create menu actions. A builder can be used when there needs to be state information or more complex logic than simple helpers can provide.

In this case, we wanted to make sure that an action was marked as the first action if it was indeed the first to be called. By implementing an instance variable to count the number of actions that had been called, we are able to do this with ease. Additionally, if we ever wanted to change how the menu items were rendered, all of the changes are completely contained in the helper and builder, leaving the views unchanged.

I’ve found it a useful practice to stub out block-accepting helpers for any markup that I think I’ll be using frequently at the start of an application. This gives the developers a chance to keep going while the design can evolve on a completely separate track. Additionally, it creates some fantastically readable code in the views.