I’ve been meaning to write this for a while but got sidetracked with other things, so this is an experience report of using Elm to build a single page application.

First of all you can see the final site here

Basic Structure

The basic structure is a navigation driven single page application, which also uses The Elm Architecture

I split the site into separate file mainly based on how i structure elm apps by Kris Jenkins.

├─ App.elm
├─ Data.elm
├─ Shared.elm
├─ State.elm
├─ Types.elm
├─ View.elm
├─ About
│  └─ View.elm
├─ Category
│  └─ View.elm
├─ Contact
│  └─ View.elm
├─ Detail
│  └─ View.elm
├─ Gallery
│  └─ View.elm
└─ Home
   └─ View.elm

I think its slightly overkill for a site of this size and complexity but its nice to understand where things will lead on a bigger site where you have additional files like State.elm, Types.elm and Rest.elm etc.

One of the things that I did find a annoying at times was if I had About/View.elm and Category/View.elm both open in the tabs of my editor. Only View.elm is shown in the tab so I had to hovering on the tab to see the full path or read the module name at the top of the file. Renaming the file to AboutView.elm would mean the import statement would have to change to import About.AboutView as Elm enforces the directory name prefix.

Application structure

As per the how i structure elm apps article my application was structured like this:

module Main exposing (..)
import View exposing (rootView)
import Navigation
import State

main : Program Never
main =
    Navigation.program (Navigation.makeParser State.pathParser)
        { init = State.init
        , view = View.rootView
        , update = State.update
        , urlUpdate = State.urlUpdate
        , subscriptions = State.subscriptions

All the main elements of the application are imported and a Navigation.program is started with the appropriate init, view, update, urlUpdate and subscriptions.

Model Messages and types


The model is super simple, all that has to be recorded is the current page:

type alias Model =
    { page : Page }


The messages the application will deal with are also pretty simple:

type Msg
    = NavigateTo Page
    | NavigateBack
    | GmailCaptcha
  • NavigateTo simply navigates to the page in question.
  • NavigateBack just navigates back one page.
  • GmailCaptcha displays a captcha request which then shows an email address on success.

Page is just a union type consisting of the pages in the application:

type Page
    = Home
    | About
    | Contact
    | Gallery
    | CategoryDetail CategoryType
    | ItemDetail String

And CategoryType another union:

type CategoryType
    = Perfumes
    | Seasides
    | IllustratedQuotes
    | Bottles
    | Cocktails
    | Architecture
    | VintageCameras
    | Cakes
    | Unknown

Category and Item are simple records:

type alias Category =
    {categoryType : CategoryType, img : String, description : String}

type alias Item =
    {id : String, title : String, img : String, description : String, category : CategoryType}


All Elm application have an update function and ours is defined like this:

update : Msg -> Model -> ( Model, Cmd b )
update msg model =
    case msg of
        NavigateTo page ->
            ( model, (Navigation.newUrl <| pageToString page) )

        NavigateBack ->
            model => (Navigation.back 1)

        GmailCaptcha ->
            ( model, captcha() )

We pattern match on the msg and either use the commands described in Messages


The View is quite simple its a virtual dom defined by the following nodes on the `rootView:

rootView model =
    div [class "container"]
            nav [ class "navbar navbar-light", attribute "role" "navigation" ]
                [ a [class "pull-xs-left"
                    , href <| toHash Home
                    , onClick' <| NavigateTo Home
                    [img [id "logo", class "img-fluid", src "/img/logogreen.png", srcset ["/img/logogreen.png","/img/logogreen@2x.png" ] ] []]
                  ,  button [ attribute "aria-controls" "exCollapsingNavbar2"
                            , attribute "aria-expanded" "false"
                            , attribute "aria-label" "Toggle navigation"
                            , class "navbar-toggler hidden-sm-up flex-center"
                            , attribute "data-target" "#exCollapsingNavbar2"
                            , attribute "data-toggle" "collapse"
                            , type' "button"
                                [ text "☰" ]
                , div [ class "collapse navbar-toggleable-xs", id "exCollapsingNavbar2" ]
                    [   ul [ class "nav navbar-nav pull-sm-right text-xs-center" ]
                        [ renderMenuItem model Home "Home"
                        , renderMenuItem model About "About"
                        , renderMenuItem model Gallery "Gallery"
                        , renderMenuItem model Contact "Contact"
        , div [class "content container-fluid"] [viewPage model]
        , footer

renderMenuItem is just changing a navigations item’s style based on the current page so I have omitted that.

viewPage is where the view is updated depending on which page is current:

viewPage model =
    case model.page of
        Home -> getHomePage ()
        About -> getAboutPage ()
        Gallery -> getGalleryAsCards ()
        Contact -> getContactPage () 
        CategoryDetail category -> getCategoryPageCards category
        ItemDetail item -> getItemPage item

You can see there is a separate view for each page which in return a list of nodes for that particular view, I wont list them all as the are relatively similar.

Heres an example of the Category.View:

getCategoryPageCards category =
        items =
            List.filter (\c -> c.category == category) Data.items
        colClass =
            case List.length items of
                1 -> "col-xs-12"
                2 -> "col-xs-12 col-sm-6"
                _ -> "col-xs-12 col-sm-6 col-md-4"

        itemMapper item =
            div [ class colClass ]
                [ div [ class "card"]
                    [ a [ noContextMenu
                        , href (toHash <| ItemDetail item.id)
                        , onClick' (NavigateTo <| ItemDetail item.id)
                        [ img [ noContextMenu, class "card-img-top img-fluid", src item.img ] [] ]
                    , div [ class "card-block" ]
                        [ p [ class "card-text" ] [ text item.title ] ]
        div [ class "container-fluid" ]
            [ div [ class "row" ]
                (items |> List.map itemMapper)
            , div [] [ backButton ]

The nodes returned from getCategoryPageCards are returned as part of viewPage. Data.items are filtered by the current category and mapped into divs with onClick navigation to the ItemDetail page


Navigation is handled with Elm Navigation which provides the Navigation.program you saw in Application structure.
The program function has been extended with an additional two arguments.

The first additional argument is a Parser, there is a utility function called makeParser that allows us to turn a browserLocation` into whatever data we want to.

makeParser : (Location -> a) -> Parser a

In the Navigation.program you can see this used along with the functions below to parse a Location into a Page: Navigation.program (Navigation.makeParser State.pathParser)

pathParser : Navigation.Location -> Result String Page
pathParser location =
    parse identity pageParser (String.dropLeft 1 location.pathname)

pageParser : UrlParser.Parser (Page -> a) a
pageParser =
        [ format Home (oneOf [ s "home", s "" ])
        , format About (s "about")
        , format Shop (s "shop")
        , format Gallery (s "gallery")
        , format Contact (s "contact")
        , format (stringToCategoryType >> CategoryDetail) (s "category" </> UrlParser.string)
        , format ItemDetail (s "item" </> UrlParser.string)

This leads nicely into parsing, actually first lets look at urlUpdate because its pretty simple:

urlUpdate : Result a Page -> Model -> ( Model, Cmd c )
urlUpdate result model =
    case result of
        Err _ ->
            ( model, Navigation.modifyUrl (pageToString model.page) )

        Ok page ->
            { model | page = page } => updateAnalytics (pageToString page)

We pattern match on the result and if its Ok we update the models page to the one passed in. If the result is an error (Err) then we modify the url with Navigation.modifyUrl just pointing it back to the previous page. pageToString simply turns the Page type back into a string.

I’m going to strategically ignore updateAnalytics for now as this will be covered later.


Parsing is handled with a small parser combinator library url-parser in the function above you can see how combinators are used to parse Navigation into a Page

  • oneOf is a combinator that will try to match one of the parsers in a list.
  • s is a string combinator matching a particular string like “home”, “shop” etc.
  • </> is a combinator that matches a / character in the location like item/myitem.
  • UrlParser.string matches any string.
  • format Is a combinator that allows you to customise or map another Parser, here it is used to Parsed output into the union types that represent them.

Google Analytics

Ok back to updateAnalytics remember from urlUpdate?

{ model | page = page } => updateAnalytics (pageToString page)

updateAnalytics is a function defined as follows:

port updateAnalytics: String -> Cmd msg

Yes its just a type signature as this is a port where we will be sending information out of our app into the fabulous JavaScript world, I’m glad you can’t hear the sarcasm in my voice :-)

Because this is a single page application we need to provide a way to update Google analytics whenever the page navigation changes otherwise everything will be displayed as a hit to the root. Luckily all we need is a call to the normal Google Analytics script via the port we just set up.

The JavaScript looks like this:

var Elm = require('./App');
var app = Elm.Main.embed(document.getElementById('main'));

app.ports.updateAnalytics.subscribe(function (page) {
    ga('set', 'page', page);
    ga('send', 'pageview');

On the fist two lines you can see where Elm is embedded into the the html main element, the important part is where app.ports.updateAnalytics.subscribe is used to subscribe to the port Elm is publishing whenever updateAnalytics is being called with the new Page. The result of this is we can now use Google Analytics to see exactly what page a user is visiting.

Actually the GmailCaptcha message is the same except it uses a Port defined like this:

port captcha : () -> Cmd msg

And then the JavaScript subscription is as follows:

app.ports.captcha.subscribe(function () {
    window.open('http://www.google.com/recaptcha/mailhide/...', '', 'toolbar=0,scrollbars=0,location=0,statusbar=0,menubar=0,resizable=0,width=500,height=300');
    return false;

All that’s happening here is that when the GmailCaptcha message is sent a window is opened via the Port and JavaScript to allow the email address to be retrieved.


This post never intended to explain in detail about creating the web application more just to expose some of the more interesting parts and to show how much fun it is working in Elm is.

I used VSCode with the elm addin to build the entire thing and it worked out wonderfully.

Comparison with Fable

This is the bit I was dreading a little. Fable is a F# -> JavaScript transpiler. I’ve done quite a lot of hacking with Fable and also made some contributions lately. I would describe Elm as batteries included, and very slick, and lovely to work in. I really love using it! I really like the great compiler message, I also like the public type annotations that the Elm compiler nudges you to add. Its very useful when reading code on-line to know the types on the publicly exposed parts so that you don’t have to use a visual editor to find out. I could probably write an entire post comparing the two languages so I’ll leave it there for now.

So whats Left?

All that’s left is the deployment and hosting side which I’ll delve into another time.

If you have any requests for me to go into parts in more detail please leave a comment or ping me on Twitter and I’ll add that in too.

Until next time!