Creating ViewModels with ReactiveObject

At the core of every MVVM framework is the ViewModel - while this class is the most interesting aspect of the MVVM pattern, it is also the most misunderstood. Properly reasoning about what a ViewModel is and is not, is crucial to correctly applying the MVVM pattern.

The Zen of The ViewModel

Most UI frameworks have applied almost zero thought to unit testing when their framework was designed, or those concerns were deemed as out-of-scope. As a result, UI objects are often very difficult to test in unit test runners, as they are not just plain objects. They may have dependencies on a runloop existing, or often expect static classes / globals to be initialized in a certain way.

So, since UI classes are untestable, our new goal is to put as much of our interesting code, into a class that represents the View, but is just a regular class we can create. Then, we want the actual code in the View to be as boring, mechanical, and as short as possible, because it is inherently untestable.

This class is called the ViewModel, and it is the Model of a View. This means, that you usually have one ViewModel per View. This doesn't have to be strictly true, but it is generally the case.

Another important aspect of understanding ViewModels is that they are an abstraction to separate policy from mechanism. ViewModels do not deal in the specifics of Buttons and Menus and TextBoxes, they only describe how the data in these elements are related. For example, the "Copy" ICommand has no direct knowledge of the MenuItem or the Button that it is connected to, it only models the Action of Copying. The View has the responsibility of mapping the Copy command to the controls that invoke it.

ViewModels are Reusable

Because ViewModels do not explicitly reference UI frameworks or controls, this means that ViewModels can often be reused across platforms. This is a very powerful pattern that can drastically reduce the time required to port to a new platform, especially in conjunction with portable libraries designed to help in this task, such as Splat and Akavache. The majority of your application's interesting code (models / network handling / caching / image loading / viewmodels) can be used on all platforms, and only the View-related classes need to be rewritten.

Common Mistakes and Misconceptions

Many people believe that the MVVM pattern means that there should be zero code in the View code-behind, or that everything should be in XAML. While certain patterns such as Blend Triggers generally promote code reuse, this is generally an Antipattern. C# is a much more expressive, more concise language than XAML, and while it may be possible for you to create an entire complex View without writing any code, the result will be an unmaintainable, difficult to read mess.

So then, how do I decide what to put in the View? Concepts such as scroll position and control focus are great examples of code that is View-specific. Handling animation and Window position / minimize are also great examples of code that often should be in the View.

Another common misconception is that of separation - while it is very important that the ViewModel have no reference to the View or any of the controls that the View creates, the reverse is not true. The View is free to be very tightly bound to the ViewModel, and in fact, it is often useful for the View to "reach into" the ViewModel via WhenAny and WhenAnyObservable.

With the theory out of the way, let's see how to create ViewModels in ReactiveUI.

Read-Write Properties

Properties that participate in change notification (i.e. that signal when they are changed), are written in the following way:

string name;
public string Name {
    get { return name; }
    set { this.RaiseAndSetIfChanged(ref name, value); }
}

Note, that unlike in other frameworks, they are always written this way, using the exact same boilerplate code. If you are attempting to put anything in the setter, you are almost certainly Doing It Wrong, and instead should be using WhenAny and ToProperty instead.

Read-Only Properties

Properties that are only initialized in the constructor and don't ever change, don't need to be written via RaiseAndSetIfChanged, they can be declared as normal properties:

// Since Commands should almost always be initialized in the constructor and
// never change, they are good candidates for this pattern
public ReactiveCommand<Object> PostTweet { get; protected set; }

public PostViewModel()
{
    PostTweet = ReactiveCommand.Create(/*...*/);
}

Output Properties

So far, nothing here has been particularly surprising, just boilerplate MVVM features. However, there is another type of Property in ReactiveUI that doesn't exist in other frameworks that is very important to effectively use ReactiveUI, the "Output Property".

Output properties are a way to take Observables and convert them into ViewModel Properties. We'll often use them with the opposite method, which turns ViewModel Properties into Observables, WhenAny. As the name implies, Output Properties are usually read-only (i.e. the source Observable dictates when the property changes).

First, we need to be able to declare an Output Property, using a class called ObservableAsPropertyHelper<T>:

readonly ObservableAsPropertyHelper<string> firstName;
public string FirstName {
    get { return firstName.Value; }
}

Similar to read-write properties, this code should always be 100% boilerplate. Next, we'll use a helper method ToProperty to initialize firstName in the constructor:

this.WhenAnyValue(x => x.Name)
    .Select(x => x.Split(' ')[0])
    .ToProperty(this, x => x.FirstName, out firstName);

Here, ToProperty creates an ObservableAsPropertyHelper instance which will signal that the "FirstName" property has changed. ToProperty is an extension method on IObservable<T> and semantically acts like a "Subscribe".

Best Practices

One of the core concepts of Functional Reactive Programming, is that instead of writing imperative code (i.e. "Do A right now, then do B, then do C"), we want to write Functional, Declarative code - instead of writing event handlers and methods to change properties, we want to Describe how properties are related to each other, using WhenAny and ToProperty.

As a result, almost all of the interesting code in a well-written ReactiveUI ViewModel will be in the constructor; this code will describe how the properties in the ViewModel are related to each other. Your goal when writing the code for a ViewModel, is to take statements that describe how the view should work in terms of its commands and properties, and to translate them into things to put into the constructor. For example:

  • "The Login button can be pressed when the username and password aren't blank"
  • "The error message should be cleared 10 seconds after it is displayed"
  • "The DirectMessageToSend object consists of the target user and the message to send""

All of these statements are concise descriptions of parts of how your UI should work, and these statements can all be directly translated into Rx expressions in your ViewModel constructor.

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