the nuances of using knockout with jquery templates

A question was posed on the knockout forum the other day that I see some people struggle with over and over again when combining knockout with jquery templates. This problem usually manifests itself as a problem with input focus, or odd view model updating behaviour, and even strange DOM manipulations, depending on which browser the user is testing in. Now whenever I see it I look for one thing, the dreaded ${}.

In order to explain the solution, I need to explain a little bit about how knockout interacts with jquery templates in the first place. It all starts with the template binding. This very flexible binding conceptually works in two stages. The first stage is to generate the DOM that will be inserted as a child of the node that has the template binding. This is what jquery templates are used for. The second stage is to take all the data bind attributes from the generated DOM, and apply them to the particular data object that is the context for this DOM render (passed into the binding as either the data or foreach parameter and if neither is present it defaults back to the original view model object). In reality this two stage process is handled with a very complicated process involving template rewriting and DOM memoization with the rendering happening in the middle.

This process is monitored for all accesses to knockout observables using the standard “wrap the action inside a dependent observable trick”, and this is how it is possible that a template will re render itself when you update an observable value using the ${} syntax. Now this in an of itself is not a problem. The problem only arrises when you mix and match this ${} syntax with the more knockout specific inner data-binding technique. When you decide to have a template that combines the power of knockout to very simply insert textual values into the DOM, while at the same time rendering some kind of form that allows you to edit those values in place, then when you edit a value that will cause the template to re-render, then the input elements sometimes disappear too quickly, sometimes they disappear too slowly. The user doesn’t see most of this thanks to the speed of javascript execution in modern browsers, but in the background, knockout is diligently destroying and recreating DOM elements each time an observable is updated.

The simplest example of this problem is shown below:

Editing the name property (on key up to cause the error to manifest, this example would be fine without it) causes the input box to lose focus. The problem comes when people see that it is possible to use something other the data-bind attribute in order to achieve their desired output.

The solution to this issue is an understanding of a better way to structure your knockout application. Instead of mixing presentation with input, these two concerns should be separated into different templates whereever possible and then you will never run afoul of this nasty problem.

If we are finding this problem in the context of a list of rendered templates (using the foreach template binding parameter), then often it is best to have a way to represent the current editing item, and choosing the appropriate template based on that observable. Ryan has a great write up about this template switching technique.