Suggestions for improving UI Components in Magento 2

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After attending MageTitans MCR it was abundantly clear that UI Components are a huge pain point for a lot of people! I feel the same way, and to be honest it makes me feel like a bad developer when I struggle to do (supposedly) straight forward things and it ends up taking hours, or even days to achieve.

Hearing the same from other developers made me realise we need to do something. I left MageTitans feeling a lot better knowing I wasn’t the only one, but I also left motivated to try and figure out what could be done about it. This left me with a long train journey back down to the land of cider with a lot to think about.

In regards to trying to fix the problem, I believe it comes down to three core issues:

XML Fatigue. XML is great, but when you need to modify insanely large node trees, you’ll find yourself making silly mistakes or just getting lost.

Documentation. There is a lack of practical examples, and sample usage of components. I have to dig through the core, and figure out on my own how to render a simplified version of a component (i.e. stripping out parents/children).

Dev tools. There isn’t any dev tools to make the debugging of UI Components any easier, that are provided out of the box with Magento. The community efforts are great though, and I’ll touch on those later. But, not everyone knows about them.

Most problems comes from the above, and subpar documentation is the biggest issue of them all.

I believe if we can tackle these three issues we can resolve most of the frustration around Magento’s UI Components. Below, I’m going to break down each item a little more, and describe why it isn’t working, and what we can do to resolve it.

XML Fatigue

The very first thing that comes to mind when working with UI Components are, as Max Pronko said, XML Christmas Trees. It is really difficult to find components nest this deep, and writing out all that XML is prone to error (we’re all human).

So let’s take a quick example of a deeply nested component, where all we want to do is replace the JS component with our own:

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<?xml version="1.0"?>
<page xmlns:xsi="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema-instance" 
    xsi:noNamespaceSchemaLocation="urn:magento:framework:View/Layout/etc/page_configuration.xsd">
    <body>
        <referenceBlock name="checkout.root">
            <arguments>
                <argument name="jsLayout" xsi:type="array">
                    <item name="components" xsi:type="array">
                        <item name="checkout" xsi:type="array">
                            <item name="children" xsi:type="array">
                                <item name="steps" xsi:type="array">
                                    <item name="children" xsi:type="array">
                                        <item name="shipping-step" xsi:type="array">
                                            <item name="children" xsi:type="array">
                                                <item name="shippingAddress" xsi:type="array">
                                                    <item name="component" xsi:type="string">Ashsmith_Checkout/js/view/shipping</item>
                                                </item>
                                            </item>
                                        </item>
                                    </item>
                                </item>
                            </item>
                        </item>
                    </item>
                </argument>
            </arguments>
        </referenceBlock>
    </body>
</page>

And there is that Christmas tree. This likely isn’t the worst example either.

The idea I had for solving this came to me on the train. It’s simple. What if Magento introduced two new nodes within XML Layouts. I’d call them alias and referenceAlias. An alias would be a way of taking deeply nested nodes representing them as a string and giving it a name we can reference later in referenceAlias to make our changes. We’d result in writing less XML, with less depth, resulting in high readability. If Magento provided this, along with a bunch of useful aliases defined for us, they would be invaluable extension points.

Consider the following:

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<page xmlns:xsi="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema-instance" 
    xsi:noNamespaceSchemaLocation="urn:magento:framework:View/Layout/etc/page_configuration.xsd">
    <body>
        <!-- This could be defined in checkout_index_index within the Magento core as an easy way to reference the shipping address component -->
        <alias name=checkout_step_shipping_address path=“checkout.root/arguments/jsLayout/components/checkout/children/steps/children/shipping-step/children/shippingAddress” /> 
        <!-- Now I can easily change the component javascript class. Easy. -->
        <referenceAlias name="checkout_step_shipping_address">
            <!-- Original: Magento_Checkout/js/view/shipping -->
            <item name="component" xsi:type="string">Ashsmith_Checkout/js/view/shipping</item>
        </referenceAlias>
    </body>
</page>

The above proposed solution would the exact same as our christmas tree, and at a glance we can see we’re referencing the shipping address component. We have achieved high readability, along with reduced code. Furthermore, we would not actually introduce any breaking changes in Magento by implementing this, these are merely new extension points that can be used optionally.

Coupled with good documentation (and good alias coverage from the core), developers would be able to simple changes quickly, without too much hassle.

If you’re wondering about the alias path attribute, and what makes it up, to me it takes a fairly simple approach to referencing nodes: if the node we’re specifying has a name attribute, we use the name, otherwise we use the node itself. In this case see: checkout.root/arguments/jsLayout is actually: <referenceBlock name=checkout.root><arguments><argument name=jsLayout>. This will mean referenceContainer, referenceBlock, argument, item nodes are all referenced by their name attribute, and the arguments node has no attributes to reference by so we simply use the nodes name.

An alternative approach could be introduce a new (optional) attribute to the item node whereby we can specify this alias name. eg: <item name="shippingAddress" alias="checkout_step_shipping_address" xsi:type="array"> then use <referenceAlias name=""> as before. This would skip the node tree path option, but would make it impractical for developers to introduce, we’d be at the mercy of core developers.

This approach should also apply to UI Component XML within the Admin. These are also incredibly hard to read and digest. Check out my post on creating a blog where I cover the admin and scroll until you hit a wall of XML. Yup that. Which actually, is a brilliant segway/segue to my next suggestion on reducing XML fatigure.

Splitting large XML Files.

Who in their right mind would want to open up a 446 line file and make changes. Not me!

If we split these XML layout files up, we can reduce them down to digestible chunks, then simply extend/rewrite the appropriate layout file. Within layout XML this is already possible, and something we can do today. It’s simple:

checkout_index_index.xml

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<?xml version="1.0"?>
<page xmlns:xsi="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema-instance" 
    xsi:noNamespaceSchemaLocation="urn:magento:framework:View/Layout/etc/page_configuration.xsd">
    <!-- include the top level children of our first component -->
    <update handle="checkout_index_index_errors">
    <update handle="checkout_index_index_authentication">
    <update handle="checkout_index_index_progress_bar">
    <update handle="checkout_index_index_estimation">
    <update handle="checkout_index_index_step_shipping">
    <update handle="checkout_index_index_step_billing">
    <update handle="checkout_index_index_sidebar">
    <body>
    <!-- define the root block, and the base component -->
    </body>
</page>

checkout_index_index_step_shipping.xml

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<?xml version="1.0"?>
<page xmlns:xsi="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema-instance" 
    xsi:noNamespaceSchemaLocation="urn:magento:framework:View/Layout/etc/page_configuration.xsd">
    <update handle="checkout_index_index_step_shipping_address">
    <!-- plus any other direct children of the shipping step -->
    <body>
    <!-- define shipping step component -->
    </body>
</page>

checkout_index_index_step_shipping_address.xml

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<?xml version="1.0"?>
<page xmlns:xsi="http://www.w3.org/2001/XMLSchema-instance" 
    xsi:noNamespaceSchemaLocation="urn:magento:framework:View/Layout/etc/page_configuration.xsd">
    <!-- Children components of the shipping address component can be introduced by, you guessed it: <update handle=""> -->
    <body>
        <!-- That horrible xml(xmas) tree that defined the shipping address component -->
        <!-- or better yet, our <referenceAlias="checkout_step_shipping_address"> with the component config defined below.-->
    </body>
</page>

Immediately we break our component configuration up into digestible chunks. This makes discovery easier, as children nodes are defined at the top of the XML file, but also we’ll stick with a flat directory structure for layout files and the naming conventions would be self-explanatory.

Reduce the amount of XML I need to write. Reduce the amount of XML I need to read. Ultimately, reduce the amount of thinking I have to do, and then you’ll have an happy Ash.

I don’t want to sound like I’m hating on XML, it’s great, but when you’re faced with several hundred lines of XML, I honestly can’t keep track of it. You’re literally going down the rabbit hole each time, and each time I lose a little more of my sanity. Keep It Simple Splease.

Documentation (or lack thereof)

Good documentation is critical for Magento’s adoption by new developers. I don’t work with frameworks where documentation sucks, at least not for long, because how the heck will I ever figure it out? So why would someone new to the framework stick with Magento? They wouldn’t, they’d sooner turn to alternatives that either have the docs (Shopify perhaps), or they’ll turn to familiar solutions like WooCommerce (because of WordPress).

Further to this, frameworks/CMS’s should make developers productive. We’re here to provide solutions to our customers needs, and we shouldn’t need to bend over backwards and spend days figuring out how stuff works, especially when it’s stuff we’re expected to work with regularly.

I don’t want to rant too long, we all understand the importance of good documentation, good examples include: React, Laravel, Symfony, VueJS. They all have solid docs where I can quickly reference and do what needs to be done.

As it stands, I don’t visit DevDocs that often, and when I do it rarely provides me with the answer I needed.

Coming back to UI Components. Components are re-usable and therefore they need solid documentation. Imagine a world where we could go onto any UI Component in the docs and see practical usage right there on the page. That would be amazing.

The Magento Community as a whole does a great job when it comes to blog posts, and answering questions on StackExchange etc. Which is fantastic. However, developers need a single source of truth.

As it stands documentation for existing UI Components is limited to describing the options available on a given component. Which, I have to say, it may as well not be there, because that every time I landed on the page has been useless.

I end up turning to the core code in order to understand the component I actually need, and well, we’ve already been over the problem of XML fatigue.

Need an example a good vs bad docs? Bookmarks UI Component Docs vs VueJS List Rendering Docs

We need practical usage examples, not a table of it’s options.

Developer tooling

When I dev tools, I actually mean a toolkit that is provided out of the box.

If we had something similar to the template hints functionality that would enable us to quickly figure out what template, which JS file, and any other useful context, then I’d be incredibly happy.

Alternatively, a JS debugging tool that is added to the page when we enable it via the command line would be great too. It just needs to be a nice wrapper around using pure Knockout, and the uiRegistry and a sprinkle of jQuery in order to help us get useful information out quickly. Consider the following:

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> uiDebugger.get(jQuery('#someKnockoutComponentElement'))
{
    name: 'myknockoutcomponent'
    componentClass: 'Magento_Checkout/js/view/address/checkbox',
    template: 'Magento_Checkout/address/checkbox',
    config: { ... }
    parent: 'parentname',
    children: [ ... ]
}

That right there would saves us from using pure Knockout to get context, and then dig through the uiRegistry to gather additional information. In more advanced instances you You could provide useful functions to return that pure data, such as getRawKnockoutContext() or getRawUIRegistryContext().

If you’re looking for something to use today:

The KnockoutJS debugger is great, but it’ll be limited in regards to Magento’s UI Components in terms of useful information. The MageSpecialist DevTools extension on the other hand provides a huge amount of context in much easier to use format.

We do have some documentation already on using the KnockoutJS extension, and also a little on taking advantage of uiRegistry. But organisation of the docs makes it tricky to figure out how it works.

Example from dev docs below, there was no context on how/where the registry name came from (it comes from having to use the KnockoutJS context…)

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// Admin > Products > Catalog > Add Product
var fieldName = registry.get('product_form.product_form.product-details.container_name.name');

What happens next?

I intend on suggesting my XML changes to Magento, I also want your feedback. Maybe it’s just me who thinks that alias, referenceAlias, and utilising layout handle updates more is a good idea. Maybe there’s stuff I haven’t thought of.

The full technical discussion probably should happen on GitHub or on the forums, that’s way an official proposal could be discussed and put forward, then PR’s can go from there.

I see them as non-breaking changes, so I can’t see why it would be a bad idea. If you have an opinion on this, please reach out. I’d love to hear your thoughts and find the best solution.

I realise this alias option doesn’t offer something that can be used today, and it’ll be yet another thing we’d have to wait for (I also hate hearing “Oh yeah but 2.x fixes that”).

In the meantime, we have documentation to fix, and further deep dive blog posts to write in order to help make UI Components seem like a not-so frightening task. Providing a central well-organised place for UI Component documentation should be the most actionable item though.

I want to do my part. I find myself working with UI Components regularly, and I’d like to write up what I’ve learnt (provided I don’t over-commit and under deliver!). I already have plans for a deeper dive into Admin UI Components, along with some practical frontend component changes/implementation examples. Perhaps some of this could be ported over to the devdocs.

Finally, we need to keep the conversation going. I’m on twitter, there’s the comments below this post, and my inbox welcomes you too (use the gert big contact me link below this post).

PS, keep an eye out for videos from MageTitans MCR there were two fantastic talks touching on UI Components which will help you out massively. For me, Maria Kern’s talk mentioned a few useful Chrome extensions such as MageSpecialist DevTools which will give you information on UI Components. I honestly can’t wait to try this out on Monday.

I feel like I should finish this with some sort of statement we can all get behind…

Make UI Components Great Again. Yeah, that’ll do.

This too.

Sorry for the long post. Sorry if I ranted, or badly written in places. I was tired when I wrote this, I woke up tired when I proof read this, and rest of my day is being spent working on UI Components. (Yes, I am trying to get sympathy here).

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