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Sam Potter
Sam Potter

Posted on • Originally published at sampotter.me

How not to do layouts in Next.js

This article was originally posted on my website, feel free to read it there instead: [https://sampotter.me/tech/how-not-to-do-layouts-in-nextjs]

Handling layouts in Next.js is a weird thing.

Simple, persistent layouts are not a primary feature of the brilliant React framework. They are however, a primary feature of Single Page Applications (SPAs). So why did the Next.js team decide to leave this crucial web page fundamental hidden in a dark corner? Honestly, I've got no idea. Maybe they thought it wasn't a priority? Or some type of barrier-to-entry for beginners learning Next.js? Who knows.

This article aims to shed light on:

  • Why persistent layouts are good
  • Common Next.js layout patterns that don't work
  • Why those patterns don't work

Then, I'll refer you to a great article with several great solutions.

The reason I'm not giving a solution here is because I don't need to. I'll be honest, this is my second attempt at writing this article. My first attempt was pointless. It was titled "How to do persistent layouts in Next.js" and was basically an amalgamation of every post you'd find from a single Google search. Solutions to this problem are well documented. Why the problem occurs however, that's a tad more obsecure. I also think a really in-depth understanding of the problem sets you up nicely when it comes to solving it.

Why persistent layouts are good

What do I even mean by a persistent layout anyways? Most pages have some sort of layout, i.e. they'll have a navigation bar up the top, maybe a footer down the bottom, and a bunch of content in between. The components that are common to every page are a part of the layout (like the navbar and footer in this case) and usually get abstracted into a layout component. It makes developers lives easier doing that.

So what does the persistent bit mean? That is concerned about how when the user navigates from one page to the next, we avoid re-mounting the page layout component, since we know that those navbar and footer components won't change from one page to the next. And only worry about re-mounting the individual page content, since that will be different.

Good layout persistence is a thankless feature, you only notice it when a layout isn't persisting across page navigations. The most common examples of bad persistence you might see are:

  • Side navigation bars losing their scroll position
  • Search input in the navigation bar loses its value
  • Initial "fade in" animations re-running for no reason

Developers often combat these problems with complex state handlers that poorly determine scroll position, animation states and other unnecessary things. While these are only poor UX issues that usually don't detriment the function of a web app. They take away the feeling that the site is indeed that, a web app, and leave the user to feel more like their on a traditional website that loses all state and performs entire-page refreshes every time you do something.

In short, layout persistence is "cleaner" for users, and more maintainable for developers.

Common anti-patterns that don't work

While reading through these, if you see a pattern that you've been using in your Next.js apps, you're clearly a terrible developer. I'm kidding. I only know these anti-patterns because I've used them all at some point in my Next.js journey.

Placing your Layout in each page component

const AboutPage = () => (
  <Layout>
    <p>This is an about page.</p>
  </Layout>
);

export default AboutPage;
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Using a Higher Order Component (HOC)

const withLayout = Component => props => (
  <Layout>
    <Component {...props} />
  </Layout>
);

const AboutPage = () => <p>This is an about page</p>;

export default withLayout(AboutPage);
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Wrapping the default export

const AboutPage = () => <p>This is an about page</p>;

export default (
  <Layout>
    <AboutPage />
  </Layout>
);
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None of these patterns create layout persistence.
The problem is that in each case, we are handling the layout responsibility for given page inside the page component file. Let me explain why this is a problem.

Why these patterns don't work

Let me start this explanation with an analogy.

Think of each file in your /pages directory as a box. A physical, cardboard box. Your /about.js file is a box, and so is your /dashboard.js too. On each box is a label, the label on the first box says About and the label on the second box says Dashboard. Next.js then takes all the code you wrote inside each of those files, and places it into the appropriately labelled box.

Now, when a user navigates from /about to /dashboard, Next.js tells React that it needs to update the page. Basically, React looks at the label on each box, throws away the About box and replaces it with the newly requested Dashboard box.

React doesn't know what's inside the box, it doesn't care. All React does is look at the label on each box, and swap them around so that the newly requested one is put in
place ready for the user.

How does this ruin our layout persistence? Well in each of the 3 patterns above, the content of all those boxes will start with a <Layout> component. But because React doesn't care, the layout gets un-mounted from the DOM as the first box gets thrown out, abandoning scroll positions and deleting input values along the way, before being immeditately re-mounted as the new box comes into place.

Now let me put this back in React terms.

Each physical box we were talking about is really just a component. And instead of code being wrapped up and thrown into a box, it's just child components being put into a larger page component. All the components that are put together create what's known as a component tree.

This whole process is known as reconciliation, or "diffing" as it is sometimes called. Let's run through the whole process when a user navigates from /about to /dashboard.

While the user is looking at the About page, the component tree will look like this:

// App component tree while looking at the About page
<App>
  <AboutPage>
    <Layout>
      <p>This is an about page</p>
    </Layout>
  </AboutPage>
<App>
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When Next.js tells React to update the page to show the /dashboard, React needs to build a new tree. This process is known as rendering, where React calls the root component (basically calling App() since it is essentially a function), whilst also calling every subsequent child component, until it ends up with something like this:

// App component tree for the newly requested Dashboard page
<App>
  <DashboardPage>
    <Layout>
      <p>This is a dashboard page</p>
    </Layout>
  </DashboardPage>
<App>
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Once React has two rendered trees, it must then determine what is different about them, so it can then update what it needs to in our app. This is the reconcilation bit, the "diffing" bit, the "box swapping" bit. Starting at the root component (<App>), React traverses its way down the tree, checking if the components are different at each step of the way. Once React gets to first difference, the <AboutPage> and <DashboardPage> components, it scraps the entire <AboutPage> tree and swaps it with the <DashboardPage> tree. You should now be able to see how our <Layout> gets caught up in all this drama. React doesn't care about our layout component, and just swaps the two page components above.

Hopefully, the solution to persisting our layout component is starting to become more obvious. To prevent our layout from being scrapped and re-mounted, we need to put it on the outside of the page component, i.e. we need the page component to be a child of the layout component. Like this:

// About page component tree
<App>
  <Layout>
    <AboutPage>
      <p>This is an about page</p>
    </AboutPage>
  </Layout>
</App>

// Dashboard component tree
<App>
  <Layout>
    <DashboardPage>
      <p>This is a dashboard page</p>
    </DashboardPage>
  </Layout>
</App>
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If our component trees are set out like this, the first difference that React encounters between the two trees will still be the page component itself, but our <Layout> will no longer get tangled up in the swapping of them. This is what creates persistence.

Solutions

Now it's all well and good knowing that we need to swap the order of the page component and the layout component, but how do we do that in our code. As promised, I'm going to forward you on to my favourite article on this topic, and the only article you'll need.

Persistent Layout Patterns in Next.js - Adam Wathan

Not only will Adam give you several great solutions, he'll offer another perspective and explanation of why the issue occurs. If you're still confused after reading his article though, feel free to send me a DM on Twitter or something. @saampotter_ is where you'll find me.

Thats it. If you have any feedback, any suggestions of other anti-patterns, or just want to chat. Also feel free to DM me.

Sam.

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