Dear Railsists, Please Don’t be Obtrusive

Update: thanks to Jon Wood aka jellybob, a prototype demonstration has been added, which is even better than my original jQuery btw as it degrades gracefully. Check it out in the ‘prototype-unobtrusive’ directory.

I am guessing 9 out of 10 of you reading the title is prepared for yet-another Rails drama on some obtrusive community members, and because everyone is tired of Rails dramas, I am risking that some of you won’t care to read the article – but I couldn’t resist :-). Actually I’d like to talk about usage of (un)obtrusive Javascript – why is it a bad idea to be obtrusive, especially given that (as you will learn from the article) writing unobtrusive Javascript is not harder, and you get the warm, fuzzy feeling of writing nice and clean code!

The Drill

To demonstrate the differences, I’ll lead you through the creation of a quick AJAXy shout wall both the default/standard (and obtrusive) way, then do the same with unobtrusive Javascript to show you that contrary to the popular belief, you don’t need to memorize the “Tome of Javascript Black Magick Tricks” by heart, use obscure libraries or special coding techniques to achieve clean, unobtrusive code. The shout wall is simply a form for posting a new message, and a list of messages below it, like so:


(You can check out the code used in this post from it’s github repository).

The Standard Way

Note: If you’d like to follow along, please use the provided pastie links – do not try to cut & paste multiple lines from the page (single lines are OK), as it will be b0rk3d.

  1. Creating a new Rails application

    rails obtrusive-shout-wall
  2. Get into the Rails dir

    cd obtrusive-shout-wall
  3. Generate the resource message

    script/generate resource message
  4. Add this the following to the generated migration (some_timestamp_create_messages (Get it from pastie):

    t.string :author
    t.text :message	
  5. Run the migrations:

    rake db:migrate
  6. Because we want to view the messages in reverse order (newest one first), we add a default scope to the Message model (in message.rb):

        default_scope :order => 'created_at DESC'
  7. Create the application layout – create a new file in app/views/layouts called application.html.erb, and fill it with the following content (Get it from pastie):

        <%= stylesheet_link_tag "application" %>
    		<%= javascript_include_tag :defaults %>		
        <%= yield %>
  8. Create a file application.css and drop it into public/stylesheets. Add the following content (Get it from pastie):

    body {
    	font-family:"Lucida Grande",verdana,arial,helvetica,sans-serif;
    	margin:0 auto;
    #messages {
    	text-align: left;
    	margin-left: 80px;
    	margin-top: 50px;
    #message-form {
    	text-align: left;
    #message-form dl {
    	margin:10px 0 0 80px;
    #message-form dd {
    margin:0 0 5px 80px;
    #message-form dt {
      text-align: left;	
    #author {
      margin-right: 640px;
    #message {
      width: 600px;
    	height: 200px;
      margin-right: 194px;
    .message {
      margin-bottom: 20px;
    .first_row {
      padding-bottom: 10px;
    .message-meta {
    	font-size: 12px;
    .author {
      color: #FF5050;
    	font-weight: bold;
    .new-message-label {
      text-align: left;
      padding-top: 30px;
      margin-left: 80px;
    #submit-button {
      float : right;
      margin-right: 195px;
      margin-top: 10px;
  9. Create a new action, index in MessagesController (Get it from pastie):

    def index
      @messages = Message.all    
  10. This goes into app/views/messages/index.html.erb (Get it from pastie):

    Enter new message!

    <% remote_form_for :message, :html => {:id => "message-form"} do |form| %>
    <%= text_field_tag 'author' %>
    <%= text_area_tag 'message' %>
    <%= submit_tag "Submit!", :id => "submit-button"%> <% end %>
    <%= render :partial => 'message', :collection => @messages %>

    We are showing the form for the messages and list the already exiting messages below the list.
    Note that we are using the _remote_form_for_ Rails helper to create an AJAXy form. This is already obtrusive, since if you observe the generated HTML, you will see that the form has an onsubmit parameter with some horribly looking code attached to it.:

    Obtrusive helper.png

    Sure, you can go ‘meh’ all the way, but slinging Javascript code all over the place is just as bad idea as writing inline CSS (or even worse, using HTML code for styling) or putting Rails code into views. It will work without any problems – but it’s just not the right way of doing things, especially if your code is going to hit a certain size.
  11. You probably noticed that we are rendering a message as a partial – so create a partial file app/views/messages/_message.html.erb with the following content (Get it from pastie):

    on <%= message.created_at.to_formatted_s(:long_ordinal) %>, <%= %> said:
    <%= message.message %>
  12. We need a ‘create’ action in MessagesController in order to process the form submission (Get it from pastie):

    def create
      @message = Message.create(:author => params[:author], :message => params[:message])
  13. And obviously we’ll need to render something to respond to the create action. Using the standard Rails way, RJS, we might come up with something like this (in app/views/messages/create.js.rjs – Get it from pastie):

    page.insert_html :top, "messages", :partial => 'message', :object => @message
    page.visual_effect  :highlight, "message-#{}"

    Here we insert the “messages” partial, using the just created @message, and throw a splash of yellow fade into the mix for good measure. Easy peasy.

  14. We are done! Fire up script/server, hit localhost:3000/messages and voila!

The Good Way

Here I am presenting only the steps that are different from the above – i.e. if step 3 is skipped, use the one from above.

  1. Creating a new Rails application

      rails unobtrusive-shout-wall
  2. Get into the Rails dir

    cd unobtrusive-shout-wall
  3. Same as above
  4. Same as above
  5. Same as above
  6. Same as above
  7. Since we are going to use jQuery (unobtrusiveness is *not* a property of jQuery, you can be just as unobtrusive with Prorotype – but I switched to jQuery just before learning how, and now I am lazy to go back check out how in the ‘prototype unobtrusive’ directory in the github repository), you have to download jQuery with some basic effects, as well as an AJAX form handling library (still from the directory unobtrusive-shout-wall – Get it from pastie):
  8. curl > public/javascripts/jquery.js
    curl > public/javascripts/jquery-form.js
    curl > public/javascripts/effects.core.js
    curl > public/javascripts/effects.highlight.js

    and replace

    <%= javascript_include_tag :defaults %>


    <%= javascript_include_tag 'jquery' %>		
    <%= javascript_include_tag 'jquery-form' %>
    <%= javascript_include_tag 'application' %>
    <%= javascript_include_tag 'effects.core' %>
    <%= javascript_include_tag 'effects.highlight' %>		

    in the layout file.

  9. Same as above
  10. Same as above
  11. Same as above – just delete “remote” from the name of the helper, i.e. use a standard Rails view helper, form_for
  12. Same as above
  13. Since we are not relying on Rails to do the rendering for as via a template file, we return the html chunk that we will render from Javascipt. So your create action should look like (Get it from pastie):
    def create
      @message = Message.create(:author => params[:author], :message => params[:message])
      render :partial => 'message', :object => @message
  14. Now comes the fundamentally different part – instead of using RJS to respond to the create action, we move all our code to application.js (Get if from pastie):
    $(document).ready(function() {      
      $("#message-form").ajaxForm({success: handleNewMessage});
      function handleNewMessage(response, statusText) {
        $("#messages").prepend(response).effect("highlight", {}, 1500);

    I don’t think so that this code is particularly more complicated or hard to understand that the RJS one. Everything is inside the ready() function, which means that it’s only run once the document is properly loaded. Then we declare that “#message-form” is an AJAX form, and that upon successful submission, the handleNewMessage() method should be called. And if that happens, we add the response (which is the return value of the “create” action) to the “#messages” div, just as we did in RJS. Then we apply the yellow fade! w00t!

  15. Same as above

(You can check out the code used in this post from it’s github repository).


As you can see, the only real difference between the obtrusive and non-obtrusive version is in the last 2 points (downloading and including the jQuery header files can be easily solved with Rails templates): instead of leaving the rendering part to Rails, we return the response as a string and dynamically insert it from jQuery. With about the same effort, we kept all the Javascript code in application.js, which is much cleaner this way (you can open up 1 file and check out all the JS/AJAX behavior in one place), especially after introducing a lot of Javascript functionality into your code – in other words, for the same amount of work we got something much better. Please try to keep this in mind when you are working with Javascript and Rails the next time – believe me, it can save you from a lot of pain!

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