Improvising on KVO

Brent Simmons wrote about using KVO in a crash-proof way. The solution he describes uses plain-old KVO instead of bindings, and custom setters instead of getters. Brent’s solution is well-thought-out, simple, and would no doubt reduce the chance of subsequent programmer errors.

For the most part, my own KVO code looks like Brent’s: I don’t use bindings 1 and I use Swift’s didSet to react to changes in self’s properties, which is a lot like Brent’s use of a custom setter.

Where my KVO code differs is in the observation part.

If I were to use Cocoa’s KVO API, I’m forced to spread out the observation-related code across multiple methods:

  • Starting the observation, typically in init
  • Reacting to the property change, in observeValueForKeyPath
  • Stopping the observation, typically in deinit (or dealloc in Objective-C)

I find that having to scatter this code across multiple methods (and possibly intertwined with code for observing other properties) makes code harder to read, and therefore harder to maintain.

I prefer to keep the code related to observation of a particular property within a single method. To achieve this, I use a thin block-based abstraction on top of KVO, which is a little different from the other target-selector-based abstractions I have encountered, namely Daniel Eggert’s KeyValueObserver (with a nice explanation in and Raizlabs’ RZDataBinding.

As is done in KeyValueObserver, I create a separate helper class to wrap the observation calls. The helper class’ init method calls addObserver and its deinit calls removeObserver. The observation is “live” as long as there exists a strong reference to the helper object. The helper class takes in a block to call when the observed property changes. For the observation code to read well, I extend NSObject to provide a onChange convenience method that creates and returns the helper object.

The end result is that all the observation code ends up in one place. While this works equally well in both Objective-C and Swift, I find the Swift code to be more readable:

// MyViewController.swift

// Whenever the model's title changes,
// update self's title
_observer = modelObject.onChange("title") {
    [weak self] _ in
    self?.title = modelObject.title

Here, _observer is an ivar in MyViewController, so that as long as the controller is alive, there’s a strong reference to the returned object, and the observation stays alive. With this pattern, the controller doesn’t even know about the helper class - the _observer can be of type AnyObject (or id in Objective-C).

This pattern continues to work well when we have to stop observing one object and start observing another. For example, my app Bisect includes a tabbed browser. The browser view controller observes the URL property of the current tab, so that when the user taps a link, the displayed URL can be updated:

// BrowserPaneViewController.swift

// Whenever the current tab's URL changes,
// update the displayed URL
self._observer = currentTab.onChange("URL") {
    [weak self] _ in
    self?._omnibox.URL = currentTab.URL

When the user switches to another tab, we should drop our KVO observations on the previously-in-focus tab and start observing the now-in-focus tab. This is inherently taken care of in the above code: The previous value of self._observer gets deallocated, which causes the observation on the previously-in-focus tab to cease. (This works equally well when using Daniel Eggert’s pattern.)

The same API can be adapted for accessing the KVO change dictionary and for listening to multiple properties in one block. Heck, I even use this API to listen to NSNotifications, like this:

let app = UIApplication.sharedApplication()
self._observer = app.onNotification(UIContentSizeCategoryDidChangeNotification) {
    _ in
    textView.font = UIFont.preferredFontForTextStyle(UIFontTextStyleBody)

While this abstraction is nice, it comes with a major caveat that you probably have already noticed: We need to do the weak-self dance whenever we access self in the onChange block. If we don’t, we end up with a retain cycle like this: self_observer → block → self.

But then, I find it easier to remember to do the weak-self dance than to maintain observation-related code scattered across different parts of the file.

The source code that enables this abstraction can be found here:

  1. The real reason why I haven’t used bindings is because I can’t on iOS. I haven’t done any Mac stuff, and have no practical knowledge on bindings. 

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