Hackle's blog
between the abstractions we want and the abstractions we get.

Reducer to reduce, with lens in OO flavour

Once having got used to the idea, it's not hard to see that any lens implementation can help reduce boilerplate in dealing with complex data structure, for example, with so-called "reducer" functions in Redux. Let's see how we can utilise something as simple as tsMiniLens to build a minimalistic replacement for the usual reducers.

This replacement would look as follows:

const reducer = new LensReducer<State>()
    .register(UpdateBirthdayAction, lStateTo.birthday)
    .register(UpdateNameAction, lStateTo.name)

Let's start with a "usual" way of setting up a reducer.

class UpdateBirthdayAction {
    payload: Date;

class UpdateNameAction {
    payload: string;

type State = {
  name: string,
  birthday: Date

function reducer(state: State, action: Action): State {
    if (action instanceof UpdateBirthdayAction)
        return { ...state, birthday: action.payload };
    if (action instanceof UpdateNameAction)
        return { ...state, name: action.payload };
    return state;

I say "usual" because implementations vary, there are different styles with much more ceremony, such as union Action types, enum as tags for Action etc. I picked the above for its lack of ceremony (largely due to representing Action as class and use of instanceof) or distraction from the topic at hand.

While I can't say I am a big fan of the whole Redux fetish, if I have to use it then I wouldn't mind writing a reducer as the one above.

There is but one small annoyance, the way the state value is being updated is quite tedious, with code blocks like { ...state, birthday: action.payload } or { ...state, name: action.payload }. It can get pretty messy if the data structure at hand is complex.

Worry not - lens excels at eliminating such repetitions. First, let's define a few lenses for State. (You may want to click here for a quick recap of tsMiniLens.)

const lStateTo = {
    name: lensFrom<State>().to('name'),
    birthday: lensFrom<State>().to('birthday')

lFooTo.bar is a bit of hungarian notation (that you don't need to follow) I use to wrap lenses for an object; it simply means "lens from Foo to bar".

With the above we can do lStateTo.name.view(state) or lStateTo.name.set(state, 'Jack'). Meanwhile, the reducer function becomes:

function reducer(state: State, action: ActionUnion): State {
    if (action instanceof UpdateBirthdayAction)
        return lStateTo.birthday.set(state, action.payload);
    if (action instanceof UpdateNameAction)
        return lStateTo.name.set(state, action.payload);
    return state;

If this seems not much difference it is only because the structure of State is simple - but we are on the right track.

Notably, the repetition in reducer is more pronounced now - with every instanceof it tries to recover the type of action so the payload can be accessed by following code. (Read about instanceof type guard)

Such repetition is something we can abstract over. One option is to use something like a builder pattern to build up a reducer with one Action type at a time.

With the idea in place, we need only add a few helper types to get underway.

interface IAction<TPayload> { payload?: TPayload }

type TypeOf<T> = {
    new(...args): T;

type Reducer<TState, TAction> = (st: TState, action: TAction) => TState;

Worth noting that TypeOf<T> represents a constructor - it kind of works like a where T : class constraint in C# to generalise over classes, and it's usually seen when a type is passed along, for example, foo<T>(ctor: TypeOf<T>) can be invoked as foo<UpdateBirthdayAction>(UpdateBirthdayAction) or simply foo(UpdateBirthdayAction). Remember the type parameters are erased at compile time by TypeScript, this allows us to pass the "type" along as value and it remains present at runtime.

At last we are ready for LensReducer with which we can register Actions with corresponding lenses, and make a reducer function.

class LensReducer<TState> {
    private reducerFns: Reducer<TState, any>[] = [];

    register<TPayload>(ty: TypeOf<IAction<TPayload>>, lens: Lens<TState, TPayload>): LensReducer<TState> {
            (st: TState, action: IAction<TPayload>) => 
                action instanceof ty ? lens.set(st, action.payload) : st);

        return this;

    toReducer(): Reducer<TState, IAction<any>> {
        return (state: TState, action: IAction<any>) =>
            this.reducerFns.reduce((st, fn) => fn(st, action), state);

All the type annotations and lambdas can be a bit overwhelming but let's take a deep breath and dive in:

  1. Method ReducerBuilder.register() takes a type parameter that is an Action's payload, for example, TPayload.
  2. This type parameter in turn restricts ty, the first parameter of register(), to an Action with TPayload as payload,
  3. it also restricts the second parameter len, to type Lens<State, string> that focuses on a string field within a State data structure.

For example: register<string>(UpdateNameAction, lStateTo.name). By specifying string, it's required that

Kind of nice that so much follows by specifying State and string as type parameters to register(), isn't it?

In fact, to invoke register() we don't need to specify TPayload at all, as it will be inferred from IAction. Let's see it in action (pun is coincidental). First of all the Action classes now need to implement IAction.

class UpdateBirthdayAction implements IAction<Date> {
    constructor(public payload: Date){};

class UpdateNameAction implements IAction<string> {
    constructor(public payload: string){};

And behold - this is how we get our good-old reducer back.

const reducer = new LensReducer<State>()
                    .register(UpdateNameAction, lStateTo.name)
                    .register(UpdateBirthdayAction, lStateTo.Birthday)

Type safety, what we value, is maintained, how? Well, by making strongly-type methods public, and the weakly-typed reducerFns: Reducer<TState, any>[] private. The public method ensures that all input is in good and valid shape; the weakly-typed field unifies Actions of different types.

This is a trick I've found useful when dealing with similar scenarios - when there is a need to unify an ever-growing list of sub-types, encapsulation could work better than abusing union types.

But encapsulation is an OOP concept isn't it? Very true. On the other hand, keeping a weakly-typed list is no easy feat in functional languages like Haskell.

And make no mistake: there are definitely plenty of OOP here: the builder pattern that encapsulates the weakly-typed functions, with a fluent interface. While it would have been possible to use functional alternatives, I feel OOP concepts work much better and are more practical. Nothing wrong combining paradigms - in fact it's only reasonable that we do when it makes sense.

You may want to improve on this solution for more flexibility - for example, could register also take a Reduce function as its second parameter? This will change its type to register<TPayload>(ty: TypeOf<IAction<TPayload>>, lensOrReducer: Lens<TState, TPayload> | Reducer<TState, TPayload>) and we can write register(UpdateNameAction, (st, name) => ...). If you've come this far, sure you'll enjoy this little exercise.