digestive-functors 0.3

Another formlets upgrade
Published on March 21, 2012 under the tag haskell

I’ve just released digestive-functors 0.3, which is a major rehaul of my formlets library. It has a number of great features which (as far as I know) have never been implemented for any formlets library.

This blogpost is very general, so some users might want to jump directly to the tutorial. Installation is through cabal: cabal install digestive-functors.

What are formlets?

In 2008, a paper was published, called “The Essence of Form Abstraction”. The paper applied a well-known functional design pattern (Applicative Functors) to have clean way of creating HTML forms, which are inherently composable.

Let’s have a quick look at how this typically works. The following code is based on the initial Haskell implementation of formlets by the paper authors, later maintained by Chris Eidhof and others. We usually have a data structure we want to create a type for:

data Date = Date {month :: Integer, day :: Integer} deriving (Show)

…for which we create a form…

validDate :: Date -> Bool
validDate (Date m d) = m `elem` [1..12] && d `elem` [1..31]

dateComponent :: FailingForm Date
dateComponent = Date <$> inputIntegerF (Just 1) <*> inputIntegerF (Just 16)

dateFull :: FailingForm Date
dateFull = dateComponent `check` ensure validDate "This is not a valid date"

And to illustrate the power of any formlets library, it’s composability, let’s see how you can easily reuse the dateFull form anywhere:

data User = User {name :: String, password :: String, birthdate :: Date}
    deriving (Show)

userFull :: FailingForm User
userFull = User <$> inputF Nothing <*> passwordF Nothing <*> dateFull


While I was working on a few patches for the formlets library back in 2010, I noticed a few things were impossible to do using this library.

For example, For usability reasons, you might want to add <label> tags in your forms. These labels need to be associated with an input element using the for attribute – when this is the case, the user will be able to click the label instead of the (relatively small) checkbox. Demo:

Another thing is error handling. When evaluating a form using the original formlets library, you would get a list of errors, and the user would see something like this:

Cannot parse age

While this is usually pretty clear, it is nicer when the library can actually associate the errors with input field(s), so you are able to show something like:

Cannot parse age

Along with some other things, these were the practical improvements the digestive-functors library made in comparison to formlets.

digestive-functors 0.3

However, one serious issue remained. When you write down a form in a formlets library, you specify the HTML layout as well as the validation rules. This is really a bad thing: sepataration of model and view is a well known goal in programming.

Separating the HTML layout and the validation rules would lead to a number of benefits:

However, it does seem to come with a serious disadvantage as well:

In order to make the coupling between the validation rules and the HTML layout, digestive-functors-0.3 uses simple Text values. An example of some validation rules:

dateForm = check "This is not a valid date" validDate $ Date
    <$> "month" .: stringRead "Could not parse month"
    <*> "day"   .: stringRead "Could not parse day"

A major difference you can immediately notice is that we use Text labels ("month", "day") and use the custom .: operator to assign these to parts of our form. We will use these labels to refer to fields in the HTML layout.

Form composition is obviously still very important. Let’s give an example by implemening userForm using dateForm:

userForm = User
    <$> "name"      .: string Nothing
    <*> "password"  .: string Nothing
    <*> "birthdate" .: dateForm

One important difference between userFull and userForm is that we used string twice here – where the original one used inputF and passwordF. This is a result of the separation of concerns. After all, a password is just a string: it is up to the view to represent it as a password box.

Let’s look at the views now and write an HTML layout using e.g. blaze-html. The code for this is a bit verbose (HTML always is), but clear, and it’s possible to add some utility combinators for it:

dateView view = do
    errorList "month" view
    label     "month" view "Month: "
    inputText "month" view

    errorList "day" view
    label     "day" view "Day: "
    inputText "day" view

Views are composable as well, which is very important. A developer might want to inline a view, e.g.:

userView view = do
    errorList "name" view
    label     "name" view "Name: "
    inputText "name" view

    errorList     "password" view
    label         "password" view "Password: "
    inputPassword "password" view

    errorList "birthdate.month" view
    label     "birthdate.month" view "Month: "
    inputText "birthdate.month" view

    errorList "birthdate.day" view
    label     "birthdate.day" view "Day: "
    inputText "birthdate.day" view

A few things to note. While "name" and "password" are both of the same type (String) we chose to use a textbox for the former and a password box for the latter: this is a possibility we gain because of the separation we made. A (probably more useful) example is when the user has to choose between a number of options (e.g. Apples, Oranges or Bananas), we can decide in the view code whether we want to use a combobox or a set of radio buttons.

We use a "foo.bar" notation to refer to fields of “subforms”. This is useful when a designer wants a custom form layout, but it leads to duplication of code. To counter this, views are composable, just like forms!

userView view = do
    -- Name, password...

    dateView $ subView "birthdate" view

This concludes this blogpost about the digestive-functors 0.3 release.

Note that I have omitted types and other details – you can find everything in this tutorial. The digestive-functors library provides a very easy interface for writing these view libraries: you can basically query the previous input, errors, etc. for each field. This makes it very easy to add libraries for e.g. Hamlet or Heist (but I haven’t done so yet, if anyone is interested, contact me!).

  1. I’ve thought about this for some time, and haven’t found a way to do it, and discovered many problems with the different approaches one could take. The reasoning behind these is outside of the scope of this blogpost, but I’d be happy to elaborate if anyone is interested.↩︎