Driving Towards a Universal Navigation Strategy in React

When I joined STRV, they had a specific request ready for me: Build a frontend app for iOS, Android and Web, with shared component and business logic amongst all the platforms.

Since I’m a frontend developer who loves exploring new territory, I jumped at the opportunity.

I ended up facing a variety of challenges—like a lack of real-world-scenarios content related to React Native Web, an unexpected lack of documentation on popular projects and struggling to build some platform-specific modules.

This article focuses on a very important part of this journey: Building a navigation solution.

But first...

A BIT OF CONTEXT

I had only worked on an example React Native app before (uncompiled and unpublished). So when I joined this project, I didn’t actually know that much about React Native.

First thing I came across was Expo and its experimental web support1, but I decided not to go for it mostly because I enjoy having control over the project stack and being aware of what's happening. I want to be able to customize the installation, install custom versions of modules and have more control over project dependencies.

I then heard of two other initiatives on Github: ReactNative for Web and ReactXP. Both share similar goals but have different approaches. As the official documentation for ReactXP states:

ReactXP is a layer that sits on top of React Native and React, whereas React Native for Web is a parallel implementation of React Native — a sibling to React Native for iOS and Android.

No time here to cover the differences between these two. Long story short, after checking out some technical blog posts and talks, we ended up going with ReactNative for Web.

After a bit of digging into articles and trying to implement each environment in its own realm, I found that for me, the best starting point was a great template called react-native-web-monorepo2, which brings support for universal apps and gets a little help from Yarn Workspaces.

Before starting to implement this approach into your project, though, I suggest reviewing your requirements and checking whether these tools solve all of your needs.

WHAT WE HAVE OUT THERE

Some popular routing solutions on the React.js ecosystem were not meant to support both DOM and native environments;<div>s are different from <View>s, <ul>s are different from <FlatList>s and most of the web primitives are different from the mobile ones—which makes it difficult to come up with a universal solution. @reach/router is one example of web solutions that have opted not to face the challenges of supporting both environments.

As of now (February 2020), however, we have a few universal web/native formulas ready. But they all ended up not fully serving our needs. Examples are:

  • react-router is a great option for the web, but when on mobile, it lacks screen transitions, modals, navbar, back-button support and other essential navigation primitives.
  • react-navigation suits mobile very well, but given its web support, it is still considered to be experimental and has not yet been widely used in production. It's very likely you're going to face a few issues3 related to history and query parameters. Also, it lacks TypeScript typings—which made me write part of the definitions on my own, since TypeScript was a must-have for the project.

And this brings us to the next part!

THINKING OF A SOLUTION

The code from this post is available on GitHub: ythecombinator/react-native-web-monorepo-navigation

When we started this journey, I admit one of the most puzzling things was not being able to figure out how exactly popular apps using React Native for Web (e.g. Twitter, Uber Eats and all the others mentioned here) do the navigation, and how they deal with challenges like the ones I mentioned above.

So, we had to work it out on our own!

Our new solution was based on abstracting on top of the most recent releases of react-router-dom4 and react-navigation5. Both have evolved a lot and now they seem to share a few goals which I consider to be key for properly doing navigation/routing in React:

  • Hooks-first API
  • Declarative way to implement navigation
  • First-class types with TypeScript

We subsequently came up with a couple of utils and components which aim at a universal navigation strategy:

utils/navigation

Exposes two hooks:

  • useNavigation: which returns a navigate function that gets a route as a first param and parameters as other arguments.

It can be used like this:

  import { useNavigation } from "../utils/navigation";
  // Our routes mapping – we'll be discussing about this one in a minute
  import { routes } from "../utils/router";

  const { navigate } = useNavigation();

  // Using the `navigate` method from useNavigation to go to a certain route
  navigate(routes.features.codeSharing.path);

It also provides you with a few other known routing utilities, like goBack and replace.

  • useRoute: which returns some data about the current route (e.g. path and params passed to that route).

This is how it could be used to get the current path:

 import { useRoute } from "../utils/navigation";

  const { path } = useRoute();

  console.log(path);

  // This will log:
  // '/features/code-sharing' on the web
  // 'features_code-sharing' on mobile

utils/router

This basically contains a routes object–which contains different paths and implementations for each platform–that can be used for:

  • Navigating with useNavigation
  • Switching logic based on the current route with useRoute
  • Specifying the path – and some extra data – of each route rendered by the Router component

It provides declarative navigation around the application. It is built on top of Link from react-router-dom on web and TouchableOpacity + useNavigation hook on mobile.

Just like Link from react-router-dom, it can be used like this:

import { Text } from "react-native";

import { Link } from "../Link";
import { routes } from "../utils/router";

<Link path={routes.features.webSupport.path}>
  <Text>Check "Web support via react-native-web"</Text>
</Link>

components/Router

This is the router itself. On the web, it's basically a BrowserRouter, using Switch to pick a route. On mobile, it's a combination of both Stack and BottomTab navigators.

Combining everything we’ve mentioned, what you get is going through each screen of the app and seeing how useRoute(), useNavigation() and <Link /> can be used regardless of the platform you are.

If asked about how I’d approach future work in a similar scenario, I'd say my next steps would be:

1) Adding more utilities – e.g. a Redirect component aiming at a more declarative navigation approach6.

2) Tackling edge cases on both platforms.

3) Reorganizing most of the things inside a navigation library and leaving only the main Router component and utils/router to be written on the application side.

CONCLUSION

My feeling is that web, mobile web and native application environments all require a specific design and user experience7—which, by the way, matches the mentioned “Learn once, write anywhere.” philosophy behind React Native.

Although codesharing is a great advantage to React and React Native, I'd say that it is very likely that shared cross-platform code should be:

  • Business Logic
  • Config files, translation files, and most constant data–those that are not render-environment-specific
  • API / Formatting; e.g. API calls, authentication and formatting of request and response data

A few other layers of the app—like routing—should use a library that is most appropriate for the platform, i.e. react-router-dom for web, and react-navigation or similar for native.

Perhaps in the future, we’ll have a truly unified code base. But for now, it doesn't feel like the technology is ready and the approach shared here seems to be the most suitable one.

FOOTNOTES

1) There's an amazing talk by Evan Bacon on Expo for Web this year at Reactive Conf. If you haven't checked it out, I really recommend it.

2) This one was authored and is used by Bruno Lemos, the author of DevHub, a Github client that runs on Android, iOS, Web and Desktop—with 95%+ code sharing between them. If you're interested in how he came up with this solution, check this out.

3) These issues include:

  • Functionality-wide
  • Query parameters from URL not passed down (here)
  • Pushing back not working (here and here)
  • Some params pushed from one route to the other for convenience being encoded to the URL
  • Developer-experience-wide
  • Lack of TypeScript typings (here) – which made me write part of the definitions on my own

4) React Router v5 focused mostly on introducing structural improvements and a few new features. But then v5.1 introduced a bunch of useful hooks, which allowed us to implement the mentioned ones for the web.

5) React Navigation v5 also made many efforts for bringing a modern, hooks-first API. This allowed us to implement the mentioned ones for mobile.

6) There's a very good post about doing declarative and composable navigation with <Redirect /> here.

7) If you're interested in this topic, check out this talk. I share a couple of lessons learned while building an app with code sharing as a primary objective: from project setup and shared infrastructure all the way to shared components and styling—and how you can achieve the same thing.

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Matheus Albuquerque

Matheus Albuquerque

Front-End Software Engineer focused on new and scalable technologies • Consultant • Speaker Padawan who loves sharing knowledge • Traveler

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