Wikipedia describes Null Object as an object with defined neutral behavior.

Martin Fowler says Instead of returning null, or some odd value, return a Special Case that has the same interface as what the caller expects.

But null object pattern can also be seen as a way to simplify some parts of your code by reducing if-statements and introducing interface that is identical in both situations, when something is missing and when something is present.

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Also it gives you a chance to properly name the situation in which you want to do nothing (is it always nothing?). By just adding Null prefix instead of using a more precise word, you are missing an opportunity.

There is a great Sandi Metz talk “Nothing is something” when she talks about it.

Rails View example

I have a view that is displaying an event data, as well as a collection of tickets available. It’s quite complicated view. It is reused in one different place. When the event organizer is editing event and tickets properties we display preview of the same page. So naturally we use the same view template that is used for rendering an event page for a preview page.

There are slight differences however so one additional variable (is_preview) is passed down through number of partials that the page is consisted of.

We have a class called EventPool which is responsible for gathering and keeping data to quickly answer the one question - whether a given ticket type is available to buy or not. In other words, it checks its inventory status. Naturally when organizers are in the process of adding tickets and haven’t saved them yet, they are still interested in seeing preview of how they would be displayed on event page. There is no point of checking inventory status of unexisting tickets (remember they are not saved yet). Also even for existing tickets we want to pretend they are not sold out when displaying the preview.

The code responsible for the situation (greatly oversimplified) looked like this:

# show.html.haml
= render 'events/tickets', {
    tickets: event.tickets,
    event_pool: event_pool,
    is_preview: is_preview
  }
# events/_tickets.html.haml
- tickets.each do |ticket|
  = render 'events/ticket', { 
      ticket: ticket,
      ticket_pool: event_pool.pool_for_ticket_id(ticket.id),
      is_preview: is_preview
    }
# events/_ticket.html.haml
if !is_preview && ticket_pool.sold_out?
  = "Sold out"

But for the entire tree of partials to work correctly we still need to pass down event_pool which needs to have #pool_for_ticket_id method, even if at the end we decide not to check the availability status of returned ticket_pool.

For me it looked like a great case for applying Null Object Pattern.

class PreviewEventPool
  class PreviewTicketPool
    def sold_out?
      false
    end
  end
  def pool_for_ticket_id(*)
    PreviewTicketPool.new
  end
end
class Controller
  def preview
    event = current_user.events.find( params[:id] )

    respond_to do |format|
      format.html do
        render 'events/show', locals: {
          event: event,
          event_pool: PreviewEventPool.new,
          is_preview: true
        }
      end
    end
  end
# show.html.haml
= render 'events/tickets', {
    tickets: event.tickets,
    event_pool: event_pool,
  }
# events/_tickets.html.haml
- tickets.each do |ticket|
  = render 'events/ticket', { 
      ticket: ticket,
      ticket_pool: event_pool.pool_for_ticket_id(ticket.id),
    }
# events/_ticket.html.haml
if ticket_pool.sold_out?
  = "Sold out"

If all the places which care whether we are in a real mode or preview mode adopted this approach, bunch of if-statements could be removed in favor of using properly named classes with identical interfaces. Some would be used only when a real event is displayed, some only when the preview is shown.

The code using dedicated Null-* classes (in our case the view) wouldn’t care and wouldn’t know if this is preview or not. The logic for preview behavior would be localized in those classes.

We could also completely eliminate the is_preview variable in the end. In this case we only eliminated it for the related part of code.

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