Designing in Swift

I've been slowly easing into Swift over the past few months. Some projects I've helped with at work have been in Swift, and my last personal app, Picturesque, was written completely in Swift. I've really enjoyed using the language, but until recently hadn't designed a major new component from the ground up in Swift. Fortunately, last year at WWDC I think we got a great primer for doing this: Protocol Oriented Programming.

I've been attempting to follow a protocol oriented methodology, and so far I've really enjoyed it. The rule of thumb I've been trying to follow is not to use classes for anything. It's obviously possible to take this rule to the extreme, but I think it is a good standard to start by for learning how to design in Swift.

Without using classes (much), you're left with Protocols, Protocol Extensions, Structs, and Enums. I'm going to cover how I am currently using each of these in my design.


Protocols are, of course, the primary interface to what I am building. They represent the capital-T Types that another developer would be interacting with, and the methods they would be calling. But they also represent the plumbing between internal components. 

For a message passing framework there are public facing protocols like Listening, and internal protocols like Persisting or Encoding. Since Protocols are also just Types, the Listening protocol can have a reference to the Encoding Type that its implementation can use to decode a message. This form of dependency injection has always been a good idea, but the reason this is so useful in a Swift design should become clear below.

Protocol Extensions

Not only can Swift protocols inherit from other protocols, but they can also be extended to provide a base implementation of their methods, or add new ones. Using this feature to provide a base implementation of a common protocol is a huge deal for Swift. You know exactly what I mean if you've ever defined a protocol in Objective-C that many classes implement, and had to copy-paste the same method implementation between all of them.

I'm also using protocol extensions to drive out the dependency injection scheme described above. Since a method implemented in a Swift protocol extension has very limited access to Self (after all, this isn't a Class implementation), you have to make sure that anything that implementation needs is available from the protocol definition. 

That's why having your protocol reference other Types, like an Encoding type, is so useful. Those referenced types end up forming the shared base implementation of the protocol. If your varying implementations of the protocol need to change the behavior of one of the base methods, they won't override the method, they'll just override that dependency instead.


One nice thing about structs is that they're really not intended to mutate. Once I find myself starting to insert mutating keywords in front of method definitions I start to think through A) whether or not I should just use a class, or B) does this method really need to be changing state after all? Many times, having a struct (instead of a class) implement a protocol has helped me make better decisions about how my methods handle object state, which I think makes me more careful when adding or changing state. Of course, structs shouldn't be encapsulating state anyways, which leads us to:


Enums are my favorite feature of Swift. I don't think we could have asked for a better tool to manage state and branching in our programs. Enums can have methods, hold associated values, and conform to protocols. Their initializers can even take parameters. They're beyond cool.

One of the ways that I use enums is to support different behaviors for different cases - a common programming problem. I have an enum conform to various protocols that can return a Type. A message passing system could use an Enum to represent the form of messaging, which could return a different version of the Encoding type for each case. Other implementations only need to hold onto the current case in order to receive an Encoding type for that case, and don't need to care about state. All of that is managed by the enum itself. Generally speaking, if you start to define a switch statement outside of an enum, consider just using an enum instead or adding your functionality to the existing enum.


We're still in the early days of discovering what makes for good design in Swift. From what I've seen so far, I'm very excited about adopting a protocol oriented methodology and continuing to learn more about good code design in swift.

Swift is clearly a language that presents us with a lot of options from a design perspective. Once we get accustomed to protocol oriented programming, the next big decision to master is going to be when to use reference types (classes) versus value semantic types (structs, and enums). That's a decision we really weren't accustomed to making regularly with Objective-C, but one which presents a whole new set of options to consider in Swift. I don't have an answer for this one yet, but stay tuned for a future blog post.