Sunday, 28 December 2014

The MVVM (iOS) Basics

If you’ve been developing iOS applications for any length of time, you’ve probably heard of Model-View-Controller, or MVC. It’s your standard approach to building iOS apps.  Lately, however, I’ve been growing tired of some of MVC’s shortcomings. In this article, I’m going to go over what MVC is, detail its weaknesses, and tell you about a new way to structure your apps: Model-View-ViewModel.

Source code :


Model-View-Controller is the definitive paradigm within which to structure your code. Apple even says so. Under MVC, all objects are classified as either a model, a view, or a controller. Models hold data, views present an interactive interface to the user, and view controllers mediate the interaction between the model and the view.

In our diagram, the view notifies the controller of any user interaction. The view controller then updates the model to reflect the change of state. That model then (typically through Key-Value-Observation) notifies any controllers of updates they need to perform on their views. This mediation makes up a lot of the application code written in iOS apps.

Model objects are typically very, very simple. Often times, they’re Core Data managed objects or, if you prefer to eschew Core Data, other popular model layers. According to Apple, models contain data and logic to manipulate that data. In practice, models are often very thin and, for better or worse, model logic gets shuffled into the controller.

Views (typically) are either UIKit components or programmer-defined collections of UIKit components. These are the pieces that go inside your .xib or Storyboard: the visual and interactable components of an app. Buttons. Labels. You get the idea. Views should never have direct references to models and should only have references to controllers through IBAction events. Business logic that doesn’t pertain to the view itself has no business being there.

That leaves us with controllers. Controllers are where the “glue code” of an app goes: the code that mediates all interactions between models and views. Controllers are responsible for managing the view hierarchy of the view they own. They respond to the view loading, appearing, disappearing, and so on. They also tend to get laden down with the model logic that we kept out of our model and the business logic we kept out of our views. That leads us to our first problem with MVC…

Massive View Controller

Because of the extraordinary amount of code that’s placed in view controllers, they tend to become rather bloated. It’s not unheard of in iOS to have view controllers that stretch to thousands and thousands of lines of code. These bulging pieces of your app weigh it down: massive view controllers are difficult to maintain (because of their sheer size), contain dozens of properties that make their state hard to manage, and conform to many protocols which mixes that protocol response code with controller logic.
Massive view controllers are difficult to test, either manually or with unit tests, because they have so many possible states. Breaking your code up into smaller, more bite-sized pieces is typically a very good thing.

Missing Network Logic

The definition of MVC – the one that Apple uses – states that all objects can be classified as either a model, a view, or a controller. All of ‘em. So where do you put network code? Where does the code to communicate with an API live?
You can try to be clever and put it in the model objects, but that can get tricky because network calls should be done asynchronously, so if a network request outlives the model that owns it, well, it gets complicated. You definitely should not put network code in the view, so that leaves… controllers. This is a bad idea, too, since it contributes to our Massive View Controller problem.
So where, then? MVC simply doesn’t have a place for code that doesn’t fit in within its three components.

Poor Testability

Another big problem with MVC is that it discourages developers from writing unit tests. Since view controllers mix view manipulation logic with business logic, separating out those components for the sake of unit testing becomes a herculean task. A task that many ignore in favour of… just not testing anything.

Introducing MVVM

One issue facing iOS developers is how to deal with major iOS updates for existing projects. More specifically, how to implement UI/UX changes as iOS evolves. Because iOS uses a combined view-controller design, this task can require a greater level of effort than should be necessary. Here’s why: because the view and controller are coupled, an iOS view-controller class will usually contain both UI logic and business logic. This means that changes in the way the view is presented (UI logic) will usually also require changes to business logic within the same view controller class.

Further, as view controller classes implement increasingly complex UI requirements, the amount of business-logic code also tends to grow within the same view controller class. This, is turn, typically results in large, unwieldy, and difficult-to-read view controller classes.

Wouldn’t it be better to have thin, flexible, easy-to-read view controller classes in iOS?

You might have seen this joke on Twitter a while back:
“iOS Architecture, where MVC stands for Massive View Controller” via Colin Campbell

The MVVM Design Pattern

The “Model-View ViewModel” design pattern, or “MVVM”, is similar to the MVC as implemented in iOS, but provides better decoupling of the UI and business logic. This decoupling results in thin, flexible, and easy-to-read view controller classes in iOS.  

MVVM also provides better encapsulation. Business logic and workflows are contained almost exclusively in the viewModel (referred to as the view manager in the example project). The view/view controllers concern themselves only with the UI and know little, if anything, about  the business logic and work flow in the viewModel.

MVVM is built around three fundamental parts: data model, view/view-controller, and viewModel:

1) Data Model
Just like in the MVC design pattern, the MVVM data model is a class that declares properties for managing business data. For instance, a banking app would need to manage user account data like account balances, transaction history, etc. These data objects are declared in the model as class properties with appropriate getters and setters.

2) ViewModel
The viewModel is at the heart of the MVVM design pattern and provides the connection between the business logic and the view/view controller. The view (UI) responds to user input by passing input data (defined by the model) to the viewModel. In turn, the viewModel evaluates the input data and responds with an appropriate UI presentation according business logic workflow.
The viewModel then is the hub of activity in the MVVM design, acting as an intelligent traffic control center for the model, business logic, workflow, and view/view-controller.

3) View/View Controller
The view/view controller is the context (i.e. the view controller class) that presents user interface elements. As mentioned above, in iOS the view/view controller is usually coupled to business logic within a view controller class.
Conversely, in MVVM, the view/view controller contains little or no business logic and is primarily responding to the viewModel to configure and present UI elements (e.g. table views, buttons, etc.)

MVVM comes from Microsoft, but don’t hold that against it. MVVM is very similar to MVC. It formalizes the tightly coupled nature of the view and controller and introduces a new component.
Under MVVM, the view and view controller become formally connected; we treat them as one. Views still don’t have references to the model, but neither do controllers. Instead, they reference the view model.

The view model is an excellent place to put validation logic for user input, presentation logic for the view, kick-offs of network requests, and other miscellaneous code. The one thing that does not belong in the view model is any reference to the view itself. The logic in the view model should be just as applicable on iOS as it is on OS X. (In other words, don’t #import UIKit.h in your view models and you’ll be fine.)

Since presentation logic – like mapping a model value to a formatted string – belong in the view model, view controllers themselves become far, far less bloated. The best part is that when you’re starting off using MVVM, you can place only a little bit of logic in your view models, and migrate more of it over to them as you become more comfortable with the paradigm.

iOS apps written using MVVM are highly testable; since the view model contains all the presentation logic and doesn’t reference the view, it can be fully tested programmatically. The numerous hacks involved in testing Core Data models notwithstanding, apps written using MVVM can be fully unit tested.

The results of using MVVM, in my experience, is a slight increase in the total amount of code, but an overall decrease in code complexity. A worthwhile tradeoff.

If you look again at the MVVM diagram, you’ll notice that I’ve used the ambiguous verbs “notify” and “update”, but haven’t specified how to do that. You could use KVO, like with MVC, but that can quickly become unmanageable. In practice, using ReactiveCocoa is a great way to glue all the moving pieces together.

To know more about it with an Example, here you will find the source code.

Coding difference between MVC & MVVM

Below screenshot is for OLD MVC pattern. 

Below screenshot for MVVM pattern (Compare viewDidload of both)

Below Screenshot for View model Class

Practical Considerations

As we've seen, MVVM as a design pattern in iOS is useful and yields many benefits. However, as with any design, care must be taken to understand the limitations and the appropriate implementation in any given project or project feature. Complex project features with a small number of views may not realize the same benefits of MVVM that a larger feature with many repetitive views would. Each developer must think carefully about the best design pattern for any given project. Hopefully you will find MVVM a useful approach in your latest iOS project.

Happy coding :)