Render HTML with Vanilla JavaScript and lit-html

Render HTML with Vanilla JavaScript and lit-html

Sometimes you need to render HTML elements on a web page. And like Goldilocks' search for "just right", you have to try a few techniques before you find the right one. Using a framework may be too hard. Using pure HTML and the DOM API may be too soft. What you need is something in the middle that is just right. Is lit-html "just right"? Let's find out.

Sometimes you need to render HTML elements on a web page. And like Goldilocks' search for "just right", you have to try a few techniques before you find the right one. Using a framework may be too hard. Using pure HTML and the DOM API may be too soft. What you need is something in the middle that is just right. Is lit-html "just right"? Let's find out.

First, I'll show how this all works. Then at the end of this article, I'll explain everything you need to get started with lit-html to try this for yourself.

When you're done, you can push your HTML app with lit-html to the cloud to see it in all of its glory! I included a link to a free Azure trial, so you can try it yourself.

Resources:

The Sample App

Here is the app I'll demonstrate in this article. It fetches a list of heroes and renders them when you click the button. It also renders a progress indicator while it is fetching.

What's the Value of lit-html

When you focus on rendering content, and nothing else, lit-html is a good fit. It works closely with the DOM to render content, and refresh it in an optimal manner. The docs can provide you with more details, but the basic code for lit-html looks like this.

// Credit: As seen in official docs https://lit-html.polymer-project.org/guide/getting-started

// Import lit-html
import { html, render } from 'lit-html';

// Define a template
const myTemplate = name =>
  html`
    <p>Hello ${name}</p>
  `;

// Render the template to the document
render(myTemplate('World'), document.body);

You import lit-html, define a template, then render it to the DOM. That's it!

Rendering HTML

A progress bar is fairly basic. There is some HTML, and we show it when needed and hide it when it is not required. While we could use a template, or innerHTML, or the DOM API for this, let's see what this would look like with lit-html.

First, we get a reference to the element in the DOM where the progress bar will appear.

Then we define the template. This code looks and feels like JSX (or TSX). The advantage here is that you can write the HTML. You wrap the HTML in a template string (notice the back-tick character is used and not a single quote). Template strings allow you to span lines and insert variables where needed (we'll see this soon). The magic that makes this work is the html tag that precedes the template string. The html tag is what tells lit-html that you are about to define a template.

Next, we compile the template and pass those results to lit-html's render function, which places the results in the DOM. Finally, we hide or show the progress bar as needed.

function showProgress(show = true) {
  const container = document.getElementById('progress-placeholder');

  const template: () => TemplateResult = () => html`
    <progress class="progress is-medium is-info" max="100"></progress>
  `;
  const result = template();
  render(result, container);

  container.style.display = show ? 'block' : 'none';
}

Now you can run this showProgress function any time you want to show the progress bar.

Note that when a template is re-rendered, the only part that is updated is the data that changed. If no data changed, nothing is updated.

Rendering HTML with Dynamic Values

The progress bar does not change each time it is rendered. You will have situations where you want your HTML to change. For example, you may have a message area on your web app that shows a styled message box with a title and a message. The title and message will change every time you show the message area. Now you have dynamic values.

The HTML is defined with a template string, so it is trivial to add a variable into it. Notice the code below adds a title and text into the template, using the ${data.title} and ${data.text} syntax, respectively.

Then the template is compiled and rendered were needed.

When this template is re-rendered, the only part that is updated is the data that changed. In this case, that's the title and text.

function showMessage(text: string, title = 'Info') {
  const template: (data: any) => TemplateResult = (data: Message) => html`
    <div id="message-box" class="message is-info">
      <h3 class="message-header">${data.title}</h3>
      <p class="message-body">${data.text}</p>
    </div>
  `;

  const el = document.getElementById('message-placeholder');
  const result = template({ title, text });
  render(result, el);

  el.style.visibility = !!text ? 'visible' : 'hidden';
}

Rendering a List

Things get a little more real when we render a list. Let's think about that for a moment. A list requires that we have a plan if there is data and a backup plan if there is no data. A list requires that we render the same thing for each row, and we don't know how many rows we have. A list requires that we pass different values for each row, too. Then we have to take the rows and wrap them in a container such as a <ul> or a <table>.

So there is a little more logic here, regardless of whether we use lit-html or any other technique. Let's explore how the replaceHeroList function renders the rows using lit-html.

function replaceHeroList(heroes?: Hero[]) {
 const heroPlaceholder = document.querySelector('.hero-list');

 // Define the template
 let template: () => TemplateResult;

 if (heroes && heroes.length) {
   // Create the template for every hero row
   template = createList();
 } else {
   // Create the template with a simple "not found" message
   template = () =>
     html`
       <p>heroes not found</p>
     `;
 }

 // Compile the template
 const result = template();

 // Render the template
 render(result, heroPlaceholder);

Notice that when there are heroes, we call the createList function. This function begins by creating an array of TemplateResult. So for every hero in the heroes array, we define a template that represents the <li> containing the HTML that displays that respective hero.

Then we create another template that contains the <ul> and embeds the array of hero templates. It's pretty cool that we can embed templates like this! Finally, we return it all and let the logic compile the templates and render them.

function createList() {
  // Create an array of the templates for each hero
  const templates: TemplateResult[] = heroes.map(hero => {
    return html`
      <li>
        <div class="card">
          <div class="card-content">
            <div class="content">
              <div class="name">${hero.name}</div>
              <div class="description">${hero.description}</div>
            </div>
          </div>
        </div>
      </li>
    `;
  });

  // Create a template that includes the hero templates
  const ulTemplate: () => TemplateResult = () =>
    html`
      <ul>
        ${templates}
      </ul>
    `;
  return ulTemplate;
}

Summary

When you want to render HTML, lit-html is a fast and light-weight option. Is it better than using templates and the DOM API? You'll have to decide what is best for you. But the real story here is that you have another great option to consider when determining the right tool for your job.

Prologue

You can also get editor help with your lit-html templates. Notice the image below shows the syntax highlighting for the HTML template!

Setup

You can install the lit-html package with npm.

npm install lit-html

Alternately you can load it directly from the unpkg.com CDN

import { html, render } from 'https://unpkg.com/lit-html?module';

You have a choice here. npm is my preference, but feel 100% free to use the CDN if that suits you.

TypeScript and lit-html

You only need to include the library for lit-html and you're done. But I like to use TypeScript, and I absolutely recommend enabling your tooling to work great with typeScript and lit-html.

Let me be very clear here - you do not need TypeScript. I choose to use it because it helps identify mistakes while I write code. If you don't want TypeScript, you can opt to use plain JavaScript.

Here are the steps to make TypeScript and lit-html light up together:

  1. Install TypeScript support for lit-html
  2. Configure your tsconfig.json file
  3. Install the VS Code extension for lit-html

Run this command to install the plugin and typescript, as development dependencies to your project.

npm install --save-dev typescript-lit-html-plugin typescript

Edit your tsconfig.json by adding the following to your compilerOptions section.

"compilerOptions": {
  "plugins": [
    {
      "name": "typescript-lit-html-plugin"
    }
  ]
}

Finally, install the VS Code extension for lit-html.

Now you get syntax highlighting for all of your lit-html templates!

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JavaScript developers should you be using Web Workers?

JavaScript developers should you be using Web Workers?

Do you think JavaScript developers should be making more use of Web Workers to shift execution off of the main thread?

Originally published by David Gilbertson at https://medium.com

So, Web Workers. Those wonderful little critters that allow us to execute JavaScript off the main thread.

Also known as “no, you’re thinking of Service Workers”.

Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash

Before I get into the meat of the article, please sit for a lesson in how computers work:

Understood? Good.

For the red/green colourblind, let me explain. While a CPU is doing one thing, it can’t be doing another thing, which means you can’t sort a big array while a user scrolls the screen.

This is bad, if you have a big array and users with fingers.

Enter, Web Workers. These split open the atomic concept of a ‘CPU’ and allow us to think in terms of threads. We can use one thread to handle user-facing work like touch events and rendering the UI, and different threads to carry out all other work.

Check that out, the main thread is green the whole way through, ready to receive and respond to the gentle caress of a user.

You’re excited (I can tell), if we only have UI code on the main thread and all other code can go in a worker, things are going to be amazing (said the way Oprah would say it).

But cool your jets for just a moment, because websites are mostly about the UI — it’s why we have screens. And a lot of a user’s interactions with your site will be tapping on the screen, waiting for a response, reading, tapping, looking, reading, and so on.

So we can’t just say “here’s some JS that takes 20ms to run, chuck it on a thread”, we must think about where that execution time exists in the user’s world of tap, read, look, read, tap…

I like to boil this down to one specific question:

Is the user waiting anyway?

Imagine we have created some sort of git-repository-hosting website that shows all sorts of things about a repository. We have a cool feature called ‘issues’. A user can even click an ‘issues’ tab in our website to see a list of all issues relating to the repository. Groundbreaking!

When our users click this issues tab, the site is going to fetch the issue data, process it in some way — perhaps sort, or format dates, or work out which icon to show — then render the UI.

Inside the user’s computer, that’ll look exactly like this.

Look at that processing stage, locking up the main thread even though it has nothing to do with the UI! That’s terrible, in theory.

But think about what the human is actually doing at this point. They’re waiting for the common trio of network/process/render; just sittin’ around with less to do than the Bolivian Navy.

Because we care about our users, we show a loading indicator to let them know we’ve received their request and are working on it — putting the human in a ‘waiting’ state. Let’s add that to the diagram.

Now that we have a human in the picture, we can mix in a Web Worker and think about the impact it will have on their life:

Hmmm.

First thing to note is that we’re not doing anything in parallel. We need the data from the network before we process it, and we need to process the data before we can render the UI. The elapsed time doesn’t change.

(BTW, the time involved in moving data to a Web Worker and back is negligible: 1ms per 100 KB is a decent rule of thumb.)

So we can move work off the main thread and have a page that is responsive during that time, but to what end? If our user is sitting there looking at a spinner for 600ms, have we enriched their experience by having a responsive screen for the middle third?

No.

I’ve fudged these diagrams a little bit to make them the gorgeous specimens of graphic design that they are, but they’re not really to scale.

When responding to a user request, you’ll find that the network and DOM-manipulating part of any given task take much, much longer than the pure-JS data processing part.

I saw an article recently making the case that updating a Redux store was a good candidate for Web Workers because it’s not UI work (and non-UI work doesn’t belong on the main thread).

Chucking the data processing over to a worker thread sounds sensible, but the idea struck me as a little, umm, academic.

First, let’s split instances of ‘updating a store’ into two categories:

  1. Updating a store in response to a user interaction, then updating the UI in response to the data change
  2. Not that first one

If the first scenario, a user taps a button on the screen — perhaps to change the sort order of a list. The store updates, and this results in a re-rendering of the DOM (since that’s the point of a store).

Let me just delete one thing from the previous diagram:

In my experience, it is rare that the store-updating step goes beyond a few dozen milliseconds, and is generally followed by ten times that in DOM updating, layout, and paint. If I’ve got a site that’s taking longer than this, I’d be asking questions about why I have so much data in the browser and so much DOM, rather than on which thread I should do my processing.

So the question we’re faced with is the same one from above: the user tapped something on the screen, we’re going to work on that request for hopefully less than a second, why would we want to make the screen responsive during that time?

OK what about the second scenario, where a store update isn’t in response to a user interaction? Performing an auto-save, for example — there’s nothing more annoying than an app becoming unresponsive doing something you didn’t ask it to do.

Actually there’s heaps of things more annoying than that. Teens, for example.

Anyhoo, if you’re doing an auto-save and taking 100ms to process data client-side before sending it off to a server, then you should absolutely use a Web Worker.

In fact, any ‘background’ task that the user hasn’t asked for, or isn’t waiting for, is a good candidate for moving to a Web Worker.

The matter of value

Complexity is expensive, and implementing Web Workers ain’t cheap.

If you’re using a bundler — and you are — you’ll have a lot of reading to do, and probably npm packages to install. If you’ve got a create-react-app app, prepare to eject (and put aside two days twice a year to update 30 different packages when the next version of Babel/Redux/React/ESLint comes out).

Also, if you want to share anything fancier than plain data between a worker and the main thread you’ve got some more reading to do (comlink is your friend).

What I’m getting at is this: if the benefit is real, but minimal, then you’ve gotta ask if there’s something else you could spend a day or two on with a greater benefit to your users.

This thinking is true of everything, of course, but I’ve found that Web Workers have a particularly poor benefit-to-effort ratio.

Hey David, why you hate Web Workers so bad?

Good question.

This is a doweling jig:

I own a doweling jig. I love my doweling jig. If I need to drill a hole into the end of a piece of wood and ensure that it’s perfectly perpendicular to the surface, I use my doweling jig.

But I don’t use it to eat breakfast. For that I use a spoon.

Four years ago I was working on some fancy animations. They looked slick on a fast device, but janky on a slow one. So I wrote fireball-js, which executes a rudimentary performance benchmark on the user’s device and returns a score, allowing me to run my animations only on devices that would render them smoothly.

Where’s the best spot to run some CPU intensive code that the user didn’t request? On a different thread, of course. A Web Worker was the correct tool for the job.

Fast forward to 2019 and you’ll find me writing a routing algorithm for a mapping application. This requires parsing a big fat GeoJSON map into a collection of nodes and edges, to be used when a user asks for directions. The processing isn’t in response to a user request and the user isn’t waiting on it. And so, a Web Worker is the correct tool for the job.

It was only when doing this that it dawned on me: in the intervening quartet of years, I have seen exactly zero other instances where Web Workers would have improved the user experience.

Contrast this with a recent resurgence in Web Worker wonderment, and combine that contrast with the fact that I couldn’t think of anything else to write about, then concatenate that combined contrast with my contrarian character and you’ve got yourself a blog post telling you that maybe Web Workers are a teeny-tiny bit overhyped.

Thanks for reading

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Further reading

An Introduction to Web Workers

JavaScript Web Workers: A Beginner’s Guide

Using Web Workers to Real-time Processing

How to use Web Workers in Angular app

Using Web Workers with Angular CLI