Type to generate custom UI components with AI

Type to generate UI components from text

OR

Browse thousands of MUI, Tailwind, React components that are fully customizable and responsive.

Explore Components

React Refs: Top Insights and Strategies for the Best Use

React, a powerful JavaScript library for building user interfaces, introduces a concept known as “refs” or references. React refs provide a way to access DOM nodes or React elements that are rendered in the render method. Understanding react refs is crucial for developers looking to manage focus, trigger imperative animations, or integrate with third-party DOM libraries effectively.

React ref – Video Resources

If you’re looking to speed up your development time, consider checking out PureCode AI. PureCode provides over 10k AI-generated templates that can be integrated into your web pages to help you build UI faster.

Brief Overview of Refs in ReactJS

In ReactJS, the typical dataflow involves parent components interacting with their children through props. To modify a child, you re-render it with new props. However, there are scenarios where you need to imperatively modify a child outside of this dataflow. This could involve a DOM element or a React component instance. React refs serve as an escape hatch for these cases.

Understanding React Refs

Refs are created using React.createRef() and are attached to React elements via the ref attribute. They are commonly assigned to an instance property when a component is constructed, allowing them to be referenced throughout the component. For example:

class MyComponent extends React.Component {
  constructor(props) {
    super(props);
    this.myRef = React.createRef();
  }
  render() {
    return <div ref={this.myRef} />;
  }
}

When a ref is passed to an element in the render method, a reference to the node becomes accessible at the current attribute of the ref. The nature of the ref’s current property varies based on the type of node:

  • For an HTML element, the ref created with React.createRef() receives the underlying DOM element.

  • For a custom class component, the ref object receives the mounted instance of the component.

However, refs are not to be used with function components as they don’t have instances. Understanding the use of refs in React is essential for direct manipulation of DOM elements and components, offering more fine-grain control in specific scenarios. They are particularly useful in managing focus, text selection, media playback, and integrating with third-party DOM libraries, providing a direct way to interact with the DOM node or React element.

Core Concepts of Refs in React

React refs, short for references, are a powerful feature in React’s arsenal, offering direct access to a DOM node or React component instance. They play a crucial role in scenarios where the usual data flow paradigm of React (props and state) doesn’t suffice. This is particularly evident in cases involving direct DOM manipulation, integration with third-party DOM libraries, and managing focus or media playback.

When you create a ref using React.createRef(), it returns an object, known as the ref object. This object has a property current that is set to the underlying DOM element or class component instance after the component mounts. For instance, in a Class CustomTextInput extends React.Component, a ref to an input element allows direct access to the DOM node, enabling operations like focusing the input or reading its value.

Are you searching for ways to enhance your team’s productivity? Explore Purecode AI, an AI custom component generator that covers everything from HTML and CSS to Tailwind, JavaScript, and more.

How Refs Differ from State

The key difference between refs and state in React lies in their impact on the render cycle. While changes in state trigger a re-render, updating a ref does not. This makes refs suitable for managing DOM elements and component instances without affecting the rendering process.

State: It’s reactive. When the state of a component changes, React re-renders the component to reflect the new state. State is ideal for data that changes over time and needs to be kept in sync with the UI.

Refs: They are imperative and provide a way to interact with actual DOM nodes or React component instances. Refs are used for actions like managing focus, text selection, or triggering animations, where direct access to the DOM is required. For example, in a Class App extends React.Component, you might use refs to focus an input element as soon as the component mounts.

Practical Example

Consider a Class MyComponent extends React.Component where you need to manage focus on an input element when the component mounts. Here, you would use a ref:

class MyComponent extends React.Component {
  constructor(props) {
    super(props);
    this.inputRef = React.createRef();
  }

  componentDidMount() {
    this.inputRef.current.focus();
  }

  render() {
    return <input ref={this.inputRef} />;
  }
}

In this example, this.inputRef is a ref object, and this.inputRef.current is the underlying DOM node of the input element. This pattern is a common approach in class components for managing focus or accessing raw DOM APIs.

Practical Use Cases for Refs

Refs in React are not just a feature but a strategic tool for specific scenarios where the traditional React data flow (via state and props) doesn’t suffice. Here are some practical scenarios where refs are not just useful but necessary:

  1. Managing Focus, Text Selection, or Media Playback: Refs provide a direct way to access and manipulate DOM nodes. For instance, in a Class App extends React.Component, you might need to immediately focus an input element when a component mounts or manage text selection in a complex interactive component.

  2. Triggering Imperative Animations: When dealing with animations that require direct manipulation of DOM nodes, refs are invaluable. They allow you to bypass the React component lifecycle if you need to trigger animations that don’t fit into the declarative flow.

  3. Integration with Third-Party DOM Libraries: In scenarios where you need to integrate React with non-React libraries that manipulate the DOM, refs provide a bridge. They allow you to pass DOM nodes to third-party libraries effectively.

Examples of Using Refs for DOM Manipulation and Integration with Third-Party Libraries

DOM Manipulation: Consider a Class CustomTextInput extends React.Component that needs to focus on an input element as soon as it’s rendered:

class CustomTextInput extends React.Component {
  constructor(props) {
    super(props);
    this.textInput = React.createRef();
  }

  componentDidMount() {
    this.textInput.current.focus();
  }

  render() {
    return <input type="text" ref={this.textInput} />;
  }
}

In this example, this.textInput.current directly accesses the input DOM node, allowing for immediate focus management.

Integration with Third-Party Libraries: Suppose you’re using a third-party JavaScript library that requires a DOM node for initialization. You can use a ref to pass the required DOM element to the library. For example, integrating a charting library with a React component might involve creating a ref to a div element where the chart should render.

class ChartComponent extends React.Component {
  constructor(props) {
    super(props);
    this.chartRef = React.createRef();
  }

  componentDidMount() {
    const chart = new ThirdPartyChartLibrary(this.chartRef.current);
    chart.initialize();
  }

  render() {
    return <div ref={this.chartRef} />;
  }
}

Here, this.chartRef.current provides the DOM node to the third-party chart library for rendering the chart.

Refs in React are powerful for direct DOM manipulation and interacting with external libraries, offering more control over your components when you need to step outside the React paradigm. They are essential for cases where declarative data flow doesn’t meet the needs, such as managing focus, integrating with non-React libraries, and controlling media playback or animations directly.

The Debate: To Use or Not to Use Refs

The use of refs in React is a topic of debate among developers. Understanding the arguments for and against their use, and why they are often considered a last resort, is crucial for making informed decisions in your React applications.

Here’s a comparison of the arguments for and against using refs in React:

To Use or Not to Use Refs Table

AspectTo Use RefsNot to Use Refs
Direct DOM AccessEssential for operations like managing focus, text selection, or media playback.Overuse can lead to breaking the abstraction layer of React, making the code less predictable.
Integration with External LibrariesCrucial for integrating third-party libraries that require direct DOM manipulation.Misuse can lead to complex and hard-to-maintain code, especially in large applications.
Imperative AnimationsAllows for more fine-grain control over animations, beyond what can be achieved with state changes.Using refs for animations can often be replaced with state-driven approaches for better maintainability.
ComplexityProvides necessary control in complex components where state and props are insufficient.Can increase the complexity of components, making them harder to understand and maintain.
PredictabilityNecessary in scenarios where declarative data flow doesn’t meet the needs.Refs go against React’s declarative nature, potentially leading to less predictable code.
MaintenanceIn some cases, refs can simplify the code by providing a straightforward solution.Overuse or incorrect use can lead to spaghetti code, increasing maintenance difficulties.
Use Case SpecificityIndispensable for certain use cases like managing focus or integrating with non-React libraries.Should be considered a last resort due to their imperative nature and the potential side effects.

React refs are best reserved for scenarios where direct DOM manipulation is necessary and cannot be achieved through React’s standard declarative approach. Overusing or misusing refs can lead to code that is more complex and harder to maintain, so they should be used sparingly and with a clear understanding of their implications.

Why Refs are Often Considered a Last Resort

Refs are considered a last resort in React development due to their imperative nature, which goes against the grain of React’s declarative paradigm. They should be used sparingly and only when necessary. For instance, while managing focus or integrating with third-party DOM libraries, refs are invaluable. However, for most other tasks, React’s state and props provide a more predictable and manageable approach.

In conclusion, while refs are a powerful tool in React, they should be used judiciously. Understanding when and how to use refs is key to maintaining the balance between imperative and declarative approaches in your React applications. The decision to use refs should always be backed by a strong justification, keeping in mind the potential for increased complexity and maintenance challenges.

Implementing Refs in React

Implementing refs in React involves understanding how to create and use them effectively in both class and functional components. This section provides step-by-step instructions for each scenario.

Consider using Purecode AI to access over 10000+ AI-generated ready-made templates and components to speed up your development process. Avoid the hassle with Purecode.

Creating and Using Refs in Class Components

Creating a Ref: In a class component, refs are typically created in the constructor using React.createRef() and assigned to an instance property.

class MyComponent extends React.Component {
  constructor(props) {
    super(props);
    this.myRef = React.createRef();
  }
  // ...
}

Using the Ref: The ref is then attached to a DOM element or class component instance using the ref attribute. You can access the ref’s current value to interact with the DOM or component instance.

componentDidMount() {
  this.myRef.current.focus(); // Example of using the ref
}

render() {
  return <input ref={this.myRef} />;
}

Creating and Using Refs in Functional Components

Using useRef Hook: In functional components, the useRef hook is used to create refs. Unlike class components, you don’t need a constructor.

Function Component – Video Resource

import React, { useRef, useEffect } from 'react';

function MyFunctionalComponent() {
  const myRef = useRef(null);

  useEffect(() => {
    myRef.current.focus(); // Example of using the ref
  }, []);

  return <input ref={myRef} />;
}

Accessing the Ref: The ref object is accessed in the same way as in class components, through the current property.

Differences Between Class and Functional Components Table

Let’s explore a couple of differences between using refs in class components and functional components.

FeatureClass ComponentsFunctional Components
Initialization of RefsCreated in the constructor using React.createRef() and assigned to an instance property.Created using the useRef hook and assigned to a variable.
Accessing RefsAccessed via the current property of the ref object within lifecycle methods or other class methods.Accessed via the current property of the ref object within hooks like useEffect or other functional logic.
Lifecycle Methods/HooksUsed in conjunction with lifecycle methods like componentDidMount.Used with React hooks, primarily useEffect, for operations after component renders.
Usage ContextSuitable for components that require lifecycle methods and complex state logic.Ideal for components that can be expressed as functions with simpler state logic using hooks.
State ManagementState is managed through this.setState and accessed via this.state.State is managed using the useState hook and accessed directly from the state variable.
Component UpdatesReacts to changes through lifecycle methods like componentDidUpdate.Reacts to changes through the dependency array in hooks like useEffect.
  • Initialization: In class components, refs are created in the constructor, while in functional components, the useRef hook is used.

  • Accessing Refs: In both types of components, refs are accessed via the current property of the ref object.

  • Lifecycle Methods vs. Hooks: In class components, refs are often used in conjunction with lifecycle methods (e.g., componentDidMount), whereas in functional components, hooks like useEffect are used.

Example: Focusing an Input on Component Mount

We’ll explore an example where we’ll use refs in both class component and functional component

Class component:

class FocusInputClassComponent extends React.Component {
  constructor(props) {
    super(props);
    this.inputRef = React.createRef();
  }

  componentDidMount() {
    this.inputRef.current.focus();
  }

  render() {
    return <input ref={this.inputRef} />;
  }
}

Functional Component

function FocusInputFunctionalComponent() {
  const inputRef = useRef(null);

  useEffect(() => {
    inputRef.current.focus();
  }, []);

  return <input ref={inputRef} />;
}

In both examples, the input element is focused as soon as the component mounts. This demonstrates the practical use of refs in both class and functional components, highlighting the differences in their implementation. Understanding these differences is key to effectively using refs in various types of components within your React applications.

Advanced Ref Techniques

In this section, we delve into more sophisticated methods of utilizing refs in React. These techniques, including useRef, forwardRef, and callback refs, offer enhanced control and flexibility in handling refs, especially in complex component hierarchies or when integrating with third-party libraries.

Exploring useRef and forwardRef

useRef is a hook in React that returns a mutable ref object. Its .current property is initialized to the passed argument and persists for the full lifetime of the component.

Commonly used for accessing DOM elements, storing previous state values, or keeping any mutable value around the same as instance properties in class components.

function TextInputWithFocusButton() {
  const inputEl = useRef(null);
  const onButtonClick = () => {
    // `current` points to the mounted text input element
    inputEl.current.focus();
  };
  return (
    <>
      <input ref={inputEl} type="text" />
      <button onClick={onButtonClick}>Focus the input</button>
    </>
  );
}
Click to focus on the textfield

forwardRef:

forwardRef is used to pass refs down to child components. This is particularly useful in higher-order components or when a child component needs to be accessed from a parent component.

React ForwardRef – Video Resources

It forwards a ref through a component to one of its children.

const FancyButton = React.forwardRef((props, ref) => (
  <button ref={ref} className="FancyButton">
    {props.children}
  </button>
));

// You can now get a ref directly to the DOM button:
const ref = React.createRef();
<FancyButton ref={ref}>Click me!</FancyButton>;

Use Cases for Callback Refs and Ref Forwarding

Callback refs allow you to define a function that receives the React component instance or HTML DOM element as its argument. This function can then be attached to a React element via the ref attribute.

Useful when you need more control over when the ref is set and unset.

class CustomTextInput extends React.Component {
  constructor(props) {
    super(props);

    this.setTextInputRef = element => {
      this.textInput = element;
    };
  }

  focusTextInput = () => {
    if (this.textInput) this.textInput.focus();
  };

  render() {
    return (
      <input
        type="text"
        ref={this.setTextInputRef}
      />
    );
  }
}

Ref Forwarding:

  • Ref forwarding is a technique for automatically passing a ref through a component to one of its children.

  • It is particularly useful in component libraries and higher-order components.

const MyComponent = React.forwardRef((props, ref) => (
  <div ref={ref}>...</div>
));

These advanced techniques provide more flexibility and control in managing refs in React applications. useRef and forwardRef are essential for functional components, while callback refs offer more fine-grained control over ref assignment. These concepts are crucial for advanced React development, especially when dealing with complex component structures or integrating with third-party DOM libraries.

Best Practices for Effective and Safe Use of Refs

Use Refs for Imperative Actions: Refs are best used for imperative actions like managing focus, triggering animations, or integrating with third-party DOM libraries. Avoid using them for actions that can be achieved declaratively.

Avoid Inline Ref Callbacks in Render: Inline ref callbacks in the render method will be called twice during updates, first with null and then with the DOM element. This can lead to performance issues. Instead, define ref callbacks as class methods.

Use Refs to Access DOM Nodes, Not to Render: Refs should be used to access DOM nodes for imperative actions and not to trigger re-renders. Use state and props for any data that drives the render output.

Forward Refs in Higher-Order Components (HOCs): When creating HOCs, use forwardRef to pass refs down to wrapped components. This ensures that end-users can access the DOM node of the wrapped component.

function logProps(Component) {
  class LogProps extends React.Component {
    componentDidUpdate(prevProps) {
      console.log('old props:', prevProps);
      console.log('new props:', this.props);
    }

    render() {
      const {forwardedRef, ...rest} = this.props;

      // Assign the custom prop "forwardedRef" as a ref
      return <Component ref={forwardedRef} {...rest} />;
    }
  }

  // Note the second param "ref" provided by React.forwardRef.
  // We can pass it along to LogProps as a regular prop, e.g. "forwardedRef"
  // And it can then be attached to the Component.
  return React.forwardRef((props, ref) => {
    return <LogProps {...props} forwardedRef={ref} />;
  });
}

Testing Components with Refs: When testing, ensure that your tests account for refs and their behavior within the component lifecycle. Mock refs if necessary to isolate component behavior.

By adhering to these best practices and being aware of common mistakes, developers can use refs in React effectively and safely. Refs are a powerful tool when used correctly, but they require a thoughtful approach to avoid potential pitfalls.

Conclusion on React Refs

In conclusion, understanding and utilizing React refs is essential for any React developer. While refs provide powerful capabilities for direct DOM manipulation and integration with third-party libraries, they should be used judiciously and with a clear understanding of their implications. This article has explored the core concepts, practical use cases, advanced techniques, and best practices for using refs.

By mastering refs, developers can enhance the functionality and interactivity of their React applications, ensuring a more robust and efficient user experience. As with any advanced feature, continuous learning and experimentation with refs are encouraged to fully leverage their potential in your React projects.

Glory Olaifa

Glory Olaifa