Tech overview for _Sup for Android_ - Part 1

Monday, December 1, 2014 :: Tagged under: engineering pablolife. ⏰ 5 minutes.

Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄

I’m one of a small team of engineers for Sup, now on the Play Store and App Store. Download it! Use it! Every day! Make our founders and their investors happy. The more people are happy, the more likely it is I continue to get paid. I don’t need the money, but the people I owe do.

I wrote the first iteration of the server, but since the beginning of August I’ve worked almost exclusively on our Android client. While I did some very basic Android work in college 4 years ago (cringingly documented in part here) I consider this project, effectively, my first real exposure to Android.

Here’s a little overview of the tech behind the product: some architecture decisions, techniques and libraries that facilitated code re-use, a few gotchas, and resources if you ever want to delve into more Android work. This post is primarily about Architecture; Part 2, on Libraries, is here. Part 3 on other miscellany is here.


Few Activities, many Fragments (or ViewGroups)

Activities, Intents, Fragments, and Contexts are, like politics, weird... and creepy. Similar to gall bladders, they either directly are or have many elements of evolutionary residue of the framework and therefore have odd relationships to each other. These classes remind you that Android has been a lot of places in its history. There’s a reason this xkcd refers to the badly-designed route as "the Android Route."

Considering how to best structure your app in this environment can be challenging; what I’ve more or less settled on is the approach in the title: consolidate Activities when possible, and delegate most screen-specific work to Fragments.

Let me be absolutely clear on something: Fragments are garbage. Fragments are the relief from the thumbscrews. To say they’re "not an elegant solution" is to imply they’re a solution at all: fragments will frequently deceive, lie, and disappoint you. Fragments are the little death, the mind-killer.

That said, I’m using them everywhere.

Being a seed round startup, it was more important to get the product out rather than fully understand every facet of every component we’re working with, so when our app went on to have more than 3 screens, I picked Fragments because it was the least bad of my choices given that I had to ship yesterday. I knew they were initially designed to "be like" Activities, so I could carry over that knowledge, and worst comes to worst, they’ve been around for a few years so I was confident StackOverflow would carry palliatives for headaches.

Per the Square article linked above, the most appealing solution that I would love to explore would be to simply use POJO’s around ViewGroups, and handling transitions between screens in the app in a simpler way than Fragments. This looks to be the rationale behind Flow, though I hesitate to recommend it as it’s not hit 1.0 yet, it looks to be optimized for use with Mortar (which I have less charitable opinions of), and Saint Jake seems to be holding off on endorsing it.

What benefits has this approach given?

The biggest benefit is that you can seperate app-wide logic from screen-specific logic. As an example, consider Profile Cards in Sup:

Profile Card in Feed Profile Card in Likes Profile Card in Following

There are many points in the app (the Feed, the Likes screen, and the Following Screen, above) where we wanted a user to tap another user’s name or photo and be presented with options to follow or Sup that user.

With each of those screens as Fragments, it’s pretty simple for any of those fragments to call something like activity.openProfileCard(). The code to present the card (which is, itself, a fragment) is in one place, no matter which screen the user is looking at.

In an app using multiple activities, this consolidation can become hairier. You can create an Activity superclass that presents the card, and have all your activities subclass it? Alternatively, anywhere you can abuse inheritance, you should consider a composition solution, so you could have an object containing a method that can take an activity and use it as a context upon which to present a profile fragment.

This is probably the best solution, frankly, since it makes testing easier by decoupling an activity from it’s ability to present a card. That said, the single-activity consolidation was helpful in our fast dev cycle like painting with a palette knife over a brush for speed. This also made holding on to other logic (such as the network calls to Sup or follow a user) localized with the Context those calls will need. You trade in some "God Object"-ness of your central Activity but in return get a pretty simple model for Things That Happen Anywhere In The App that is distinct from Things That Happen On This Screen (this is how we can Sup users from most screens, and receive invites from them too).

DAG your app’s data flow

Try to ensure that everything flows in one direction, and relies on as few other components as possible. This seems obvious is retrospect and almost silly on paper to spell out, but it can be a bear to manage when you’re trying to throw an app together from scratch. Recall the chaos upon which your stateful app must remain consistent: the app has many screens, each will need to save and/or retrieve persistent data; the app as a whole will need to sync up with a server and handle the subsequent response asynchronously; at any point the user can change screens and minimize your app; at any point in which you may receive a notification which prompts a response or alters data being viewed.

In Android especially, where most meaningful operations require a Context, it’s very tempting to put Important Code in your Activities or Fragments. Resist! Limit the contamination! Let your Activities and Fragments handle any complex View mungling, but avoid letting them fetch data that would alter the model.

A very high level view of what Sup does is here (solid lines are method calls, dotted lines are events):

Dataflow Visualization of Sup

This splits up the work into discrete blocks that don’t pollute one another:

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