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Generic React Components in TypeScript

How to use TypeScript generics to create data-agnostic React components

November 15, 2020 · 8 min read

Two weeks ago I wrote about Conditional React prop types with TypeScript. Last week we learned about Polymorphic React components in TypeScript. And today we’re continuing the React + TypeScript theme, this time focusing on creating generic React components using TypeScript.

To better explain what we’re trying to do, let’s use a somewhat real-world example. Let’s say we have a <List /> component that we pass an array of items and it exposes a render prop to allow the caller to decide how to render a given item. We could use it to render the full list of active players in the NBA:

const NBAPlayers = () => {
  // 👋🏾 hand-wavy custom hook that returns an array of players
  const players = usePlayers('nba')

  return (
    <List items={players} dir="horizontal" dividers windowing>
      {(player) => (
        <section>
          <img src={player.thumbUrl} alt={player.name} />
          <h1>{player.name}</h1>
          <p>{player.shortBio}</p>
        </section>
      )}
    </List>
  )
}

Now <List /> takes care of all the UI things other than rendering a given item. Things like handling the layout of the items (direction, spacing, etc.), including dividers in between the items, alternating background colors, and more. It could even support advanced functionality like windowing for large lists in order to optimize the creation of DOM nodes by only rendering those that are visible in the viewport (a la react-window).

What makes <List /> generic is that it doesn’t just supporting rendering NBA players. It can render lists of any data. So instead of using it render NBA players, we can use it to render JavaScript frameworks:

const JSFrameworks = () => {
  // 👋🏾 hand-wavy custom hook that returns an array of JS frameworks
  const frameworks = useFrameworks('js')

  return (
    <List items={frameworks} dir="vertical">
      {(framework) => (
        <dl>
          <dt>Name</dt>
          <dd>{framework.name}</dd>

          <dt>Created</dt>
          <dd>{framework.since}</dd>

          <dt>Author</dt>
          <dd>{framework.author}</dd>
        </dl>
      )}
    </List>
  )
}

Which list do you think is longer: the list of NBA players or the list of JavaScript frameworks? 😂

So <List /> works much like Array.prototype.map(). It accepts an array of items, calls a function for each item (i.e. the render prop), and then passes the item to that function. The type of the items themselves does not matter. The <List /> component is flexible. The first call to <List /> had an array of players and the second, an array of JavaScript frameworks.

A streamlined JavaScript implementation may look something like:

const List = ({ children, dir, dividers, items, windowing }) => {
  const className = genClassName({ dir, dividers })
  const visibleItems = useWindowing(items)

  return (
    <div className={className}>
      {visibleItems.map((item) => (
        <div key={item.id} className="item">
          {children(item)}
        </div>
      ))}
    </div>
  )
}

Trust me. This is very streamlined. If only it were this simple. 😅 But there are two things I want to point out.

First, the type of the argument passed to the children render prop matches the type of the elements in the array. It’s a sort of indirect association between the items and children props. When we use TypeScript, we will want the types to match so that the caller of the <List /> will receive the correct type when defining the render prop. We don’t want the caller to have to perform a type assertion.

Second, we are requiring the item to be an object with an id property so we can use it as the key prop (because using the array index as the key is an anti-pattern). When we use TypeScript, we will need to enforce that the array contains objects that have an id property.

Now let’s look at how we can re-implement the List component in TypeScript to satisfy both of these needs. The final result looks like:

interface Props<T> {
  children: (item: T) => React.ReactNode
  dir: 'horizontal' | 'vertical'
  dividers?: boolean
  items: T[]
  windowing?: boolean
}

interface IdObj {
  id: string | number
}

const List = <T extends IdObj>({
  children,
  dir,
  dividers,
  items,
  windowing,
}: Props<T>) => {
  const className = genClassName({ dir, dividers })
  const visibleItems = useWindowing(items, windowing)

  return (
    <div className={className}>
      {visibleItems.map((item) => (
        <div key={item.id} className="item">
          {children(item)}
        </div>
      ))}
    </div>
  )
}

The solution makes use of TypeScript generics and generic constraints. So if you’re looking to strengthen your TypeScript generics muscles, I suggest checking out TypeScript Generics for People Who Gave Up on Understanding Generics by Shu Uesugi. Now let’s break down the solution.

interface Props<T> {  children: (item: T) => React.ReactNode  dir: 'horizontal' | 'vertical'
  dividers?: boolean
  items: T[]  windowing?: boolean
}

Here we have our typical interface definition for the types of our props, except it’s genericized using Props<T>. The T can be any identifier, but sadly the common convention is a single character, usually T.

With our generic type in hand, we now declare that the type of items is an array of T types (T[]). We don’t know what T will be, but it has to be an array of them. And then we make the association with the children render prop by defining its type as (item: T) => React.ReactNode. So it will be passed a single T item and then of course return markup. We’ve now met our first need of connecting the types of items & children together. 👍🏾

interface IdObj {
  id: string | number
}

This IdObj interface is the base of solving the second need: that the items are an object with at least an id property. The type of the (required) id property is string | number because that is the type of the key prop on React elements and components. But IdObj is just part of the puzzle.

const List = <T extends IdObj>({  children,
  dir,
  dividers,
  items,
  windowing,
}: Props<T>) => {  // ...
}

The <T extends IdObj> is called generic constraining. So T can’t just be anything. And because IdObj defines an object with a required id property, by declaring that T must extend IdObj, we are constraining T to also be an object with a required id property. It can have more properties than id of course, but that’s the absolute minimum. Second need completed. 👍🏾👍🏾

return (
  <div className={className}>
    {visibleItems.map((item) => (
      <div key={item.id} className="item">        {children(item)}
      </div>
    ))}
  </div>
)

And really, List doesn’t care about anything else other than that minimum because that’s all it requires for its code (in order to set the key prop). Everything else is offloaded to the caller via the children render prop that we described earlier.

Setting up these generic props isn’t terribly complex or complicated, but it does take a solid understanding of TypeScript generics which is definitely advanced TypeScript. But the result is a much better developer experience.

const JSFrameworks = () => {
  // 👋🏾 hand-wavy custom hook that returns an array of JS frameworks
  const frameworks = useFrameworks('js')

  return (
    <List items={frameworks} dir="vertical">
      {(framework) => (
        <dl>
          <dt>Name</dt>
          <dd>{framework.name}</dd>

          <dt>Created</dt>
          <dd>{framework.since}</dd>

          <dt>Author</dt>
          <dd>{framework.author}</dd>
        </dl>
      )}
    </List>
  )
}

As we mentioned earlier, the caller doesn’t have to use a type assertion in the render prop to coerce the framework argument to the correct type. It’s automatically kept in sync with the type of the frameworks array passed to the items prop. In fact, the TypeScript implementation of the JSFrameworks component looks identical to the previous JavaScript version, because we never have to explicitly define the type of items or children. The types are all inferred.

Also, if the type of the array passed to items doesn’t have the required id property, the caller will get the following error:

Type 'Framework[]' is not assignable to type 'IdObj[]'.
  Property 'id' is missing in type 'Framework' but required in type 'IdObj'.

We are taking the agreement we made with List in JavaScript and enforcing it with TypeScript. 💪🏾


I also use this technique for components like <Select />, <RadioGroup />, <CheckboxGroup />, etc. Usually I don’t just have string types as values but some sort of enumeration like:

type Food = 'pizza' | 'spaghetti' | 'chicken'

So when I pass the array of options to these types of components, the option objects have Food type values instead of string type values. Therefore not only does the selected value have to also be a Food type, but the new value I receive from the onChange handler also has to be a Food type as well. Once again, the caller doesn’t have to do any type assertions.

I’ve got a few more things I can probably cover in the realm of TypeScript + React. So I guess I’ll keep the party going next week. 🎉

Keep learning my friends. 🤓


Hi, I'm Ben Ilegbodu. 👋🏾

I'm a Christian, husband, and father of 3, with 15+ years of professional experience developing user interfaces for the Web. I'm a Principal Frontend Engineer at Stitch Fix, frontend development teacher, Google Developer Expert, and Microsoft MVP. I love helping developers level up their frontend skills.

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