Monday, April 28, 2014

Composition... And Coupling?

Last week I had an interesting exchange with a colleague. We were discussing how some views and view models are going to interact in a WPF application we’re building, and I was proposing an approach which involves composition of models within parent models. Apparently my colleague is vehemently opposed to this idea, though I’m really not certain why.

It’s no secret that the majority of my experience is as a web developer, and in ASP.NET MVC I use composite models all the time. That is, I may have a view which is a host of several other views and I bind that view to a model which is itself a composition of several other models. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a 1:1 ratio between the views and the models, but in most clean designs that ends up happening if for no other reason than both the views and the models represent some atomic or otherwise discreet and whole business concept.

The tooling has no problem with this. You pass the composite model to the view, then in the view where you include your “partial” views (which, again, are normal views from their own perspective) you supply to that partial view the model property which corresponds to that partial view’s expected model type. This works quite well and I think distributes functionality into easily re-usable components within the application.

My colleague, however, asserted that this is “tight coupling.” Perhaps there’s some aspect of the MVVM pattern with which I’m unaware? Some fundamental truth not spoken in the pattern itself but known to those who often use it? If there is, I sure hope somebody enlightens me on the subject. Or perhaps it has less to do with the pattern and more to do with the tooling used in constructing a WPF application? Again, please enlighten me if this is the case.

I just don’t see the tight coupling. Essentially we have a handful of models, let’s call them Widget, Component, and Thing. And each of these has a corresponding view for the purpose of editing the model. Now let’s say our UI involves a single large “page” for editing each model. Think of it like stepping through a wizard. In my mind, this would call for a parent view acting as a host for the three editor views. That parent view would take care of the “wizard” bits of the UX, moving from one panel to another in which the editor views reside. Naturally, then, this parent view would be bound to a parent view model which itself would consist of some properties for the wizard flow as well as properties for each type being edited. A Widget, a Component, and a Thing.

What is being tightly coupled to what in this case?

Is the parent view model coupled to the child view models? I wouldn’t think so. Sure, it has properties of the type of those view models. In that sense I suppose you could say it has a dependency on them. But if we were to avoid such a dependency then we wouldn’t be able to build objects in an object-oriented system at all, save for ones which only recursively have properties of their own type. (Which would be of very limited use.) If a Wizard shouldn’t have a property of type Widget then why would it be acceptable for it to have a property of type string? Or int? Those are more primitive types, but types nonetheless. Would we be tightly coupling the model to the string type by including such a property?

Certainly not, primarily because the object isn’t terribly concerned with the value of that string. Granted, it may require specific string values in order to exhibit specific behaviors or perform specific actions. But I would contend that if the object is provided with a string value which doesn’t meet this criteria it should still be able to handle the situation in some meaningful, observable, and of course testable way. Throw an ArgumentException for incorrect values, silently be unusable for certain actions, anything of that nature as the logic of the system demands. You can provide mock strings for testing, just like you can provide mock Widgets for testing. (Though, of course, you probably wouldn’t need a mocking framework for a string value.)

Conversely, are the child view models tightly coupled to the parent view model? Again, certainly not. The child view models in this case have no knowledge whatsoever of the parent view model. Each can be used independently with its corresponding view regardless of some wizard-style host. It’s by coincidence alone that the only place they’re used in this particular application (or, rather, this particular user flow or user experience) is in this wizard flow. But the components themselves are discreet and separate and can be tested as such. Given the simpler example of an object with a string property, I think we can agree that the string type itself doesn’t become coupled to that object.

So… Am I missing something? I very much contend that composition is not coupling. Indeed, composition is a fundamental aspect of object-oriented design in general. We wouldn’t be able to build rich object systems without it.

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