Maybe don't use Maybe?

Brian van Burken

Brian van Burken

Published: 13 August, 2018

Maybe

Your code could be littered with branches that result in invalid data and should never happen, but are allowed. We found such a case where we allowed multiple variants of data and it broke our code logic. We use Elm and fixed it using its type system. Although we describe the solution for Elm in this blog, the cases and fixes also apply to other similar languages like Haskell and PureScript. In this blog post we find the seemly impossible bug using examples written in Elm and go through a step by step progress to fix it. At the end, you could find similar cases in your application and know a way to fix them. Before we go fix our bug let’s get clear on the domain model.

How did we get here?

Our domain contains the model "Question" which can have exactly one "Answer" or is not answered yet. If the question has been answered then we receive the timestamp and content of the answer. This all will be sent by an API using JSON. Note: for this post, I've simplified our domain to this specific case.

Our backend was built separate from the frontend and one of the decisions of the backend team was to send out both fields on the root level of the JSON document. These fields will always be present and, when there is no answer yet, default to null.

Our domain code started out like this:

type alias Question =
    { id: String
    , date : Date
    , content: String
    , answer: Answer
    }
 
type Answer = Answer (Maybe String) (Maybe Date)

Here we store both fields on the question at the same level as we received from the backend. And our decoder looked like this:

import Json.Decode as JD
import DateTime  -- Note: DateTime contains our internal decoder for dates

decoder : JD.Decoder Question
decoder =
    JD.map4 Question
        (JD.field "id" JD.string)
        (JD.field "date" DateTime.decoder)
        (JD.field "content" JD.string)
        (JD.map2 Answer
            (JD.field "answer" (JD.maybe JD.string))
            (JD.field "answeredOn" (JD.maybe DateTime.decoder))
		)

Maybe we have a bug?

If we look closer at our Answer type we see that it takes two Maybe's. If we think about it in terms of algebraic data types we can reason that this solution has four possible cases for our answer:

  1. Answer (Just _) (Just _)
  2. Answer (Just _) Nothing
  3. Answer Nothing (Just _)
  4. Answer Nothing Nothing

Are all these cases valid? If we revisit the domain logic then it becomes more clear: if there is an answer we receive both answer and answeredOn filled in, else we receive both fields with a null value. This means we have only two possible cases:

  1. we have an answer and both fields are filled in
  2. we have no answer and both fields are empty

This is not what we represent in our code. There are four possible cases right now! We only want the two cases that are valid and we can’t express that right now. This allowed for a bug to slip in where one of the fields for an answer was set to null and made our application show contradicting information to our users. Luckily for us, we can leverage Elm’s awesome type system to make the other cases impossible! Let’s improve our code.

Maybe this will fix it?

We could wrap our Answer type in a Maybe and remove the Maybe for both the values or another approach is to expand our Answer type to a Union Type. Before we refactor our code let's think about how our code looks in each approach. Compare both examples below one of each possible fix and look at how we would use it rendering our answer. First look at the approach using Maybe:

import Html exposing (Html)
 
type Answer = Answer String Date
 
type alias Question =
    { id: String
    , date : Date
    , content: String
    , answer: Maybe Answer
    }
 
viewAnswer : Maybe Answer -> Html Never
viewAnswer possibleAnswer =
    case possibleAnswer of
        Just (Answer content _) ->
            Html.text content
         
        Nothing ->
            Html.text "No answer yet"

And our Union type approach:


import Html exposing (Html)
 
type Answer
    = Answered String Date
    | NoAnswerYet
 
 
type alias Question =
    { id: String
    , date : Date
    , content: String
    , answer: Answer
    }
 
viewAnswer : Answer -> Html Never
viewAnswer answer =
    case answer of
        Answered content _ ->
            Html.text content
         
        NoAnswerYet ->
            Html.text "No answer yet"

As you can see our Union type approach is less code (you don't have to write Maybe and Just for the value) and has more clarity. Using Maybe does fix it quickly. But, it adds an extra level of abstraction around our Answer type. Having to unwrap the Maybe first to get to our Answer type. With the Union Type approach, it is clear that we have an answer or no answer, this shows more intent than a Maybe. Also, our code emits an uncertainty when using Maybe. A great talk about uncertainties in your Elm code can be watched here: Working with Maybe" by Joël Quenneville. We don't want any uncertainties in our code. We are certain that when decoded we either have an answer or have no answer.

On the downside, when going for the Union Type approach, we do lose the possibility for using Maybe.map and have to use case for everything. This boils down to having the power of mapping or clarity of intent in our code. Since we, developers, read code more than we write (said by Robert C. Martin in his book Clean Code and by many others) it means that clarity of intent trumps power we decided to go with the Union Type approach.

Making the seemly impossible impossible

First, we change our Answer type that represents our only two possible cases.

type Answer
    = Answered String Date
    | NoAnswerYet

Then we change our decoder to set return the Answered type if all is well and NoAnswerYet for the other cases where one or more of the fields are null. To make our code more concise we use Json.Decode.Extra.withDefault to set a fallback if one of our fields are null.

import Json.Decode.Extra as JDE
 
decoder : JD.Decoder Question
decoder =
    JD.map4 Question
        (JD.field "id" JD.string)
        (JD.field "date" DateTime.decoder)
        (JD.field "content" JD.string)
        (JD.map2 Answered
            (JD.field "answer" JD.string)
            (JD.field "answeredOn" DateTime.decoder)
            |> JDE.withDefault NoAnswerYet
        )

Now our code is safe from weird cases and is more expressive! Having fewer possible cases means fewer possible bugs, makes it easier to test, and easier to reason about what the code can do. Another small advantage is that you won't have to write tests for the other weird cases. If you try to write such a test the compiler just won't allow you. Thus we don't need to write any tests and save time. With this, we fixed our bug using the powerful Elm type system.

You can check out the final SSCE here:

If you are interested in learning more about fixing similar problems in your Elm application I highly recommend to watch “Making Impossible States Impossible” by Richard Feldman.

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