Form Input

Overview

This guide covers how to handle basic form input in iOS.

Unlike HTML forms, in iOS there is no standard form submission action. This means that it is up to you to define when a form's contents should be processed. It also means that you are responsible for how to translate a form's state into meaningful information for the the application's models, and vice versa.

We'll focus on the very common use case of embedding form inputs in a table view. This will allow us to highlight some points that require extra care when working with inputs in iOS. For example, if the table view uses reusable cells, a cell containing a form input may be removed from memory as soon as it disappears from the screen when the user scrolls the table. This means that you cannot necessarily rely on the state of the form itself to store information the user has input. We'll cover how to overcome this and other problems below.

Here is a typical example of form inputs in a table view:

Static Forms

One way to avoid some complexity when working with form input in a table view is to use static cells. However, this is only applicable when using Interface Builder and when your table view is backed by a UITableViewController. Additionally you should only use static cells when the structure of your forms will never change.

To create a table with static cells you'll need to drag a Table View Controller into the scene from the Object Library and set Content to Static Cells in the Attributes Inspector.

You can now control the number of sections in your table and the the number of cells by selecting either the "Table View" or "Section" in the Outline view and using the Attributes Inspector. Using Interface Builder you can now design each individual cell as it would appear in your app. You can also connect the controls in your cells to @IBOutlets and @IBActions in your UITableViewController's corresponding subclass. Since there is no danger of static cells being removed from memory when they scroll off screen, you can choose whenever you want to process the information from any form inputs into useful information for the rest of your app.

Example: Basic preferences page

Here is how we might implement a simple preferences page for an app. To demonstrate the fact that the preferences will be used in the rest of the app we have a main ViewController that initializes and displays the preferences. It has an "Edit Preferences" button that will open up our PreferencesTableViewController.

NB: In practice, you might instead opt to use the iOS Settings Bundle feature when creating a preferences page.

The preferences table has three static cells each containing a single switch corresponding to an on/off preference. The swiches are connected to @IBOutlets in our PreferencesTableViewController. The preferences table view controller also has "Save" and "Cancel" buttons connected to unwind segues in our main ViewController.

The Preferences class provides us with a model to store the preferences.

class Preferences {
   var autoRefresh = true, playSounds = true, showPhotos = true
}

In our preferences table view controller we initialize the state of the switches to match the current preferences—which will be set by our main view controller.

Notice that when a switch is toggled, we do not mutate the current preferences since we might still cancel our changes. Instead we provide a way to create a new Preferences object from the current state of the switches in the UI with the preferencesFromTableData method. We'll use this method in the unwind segue associated with the "Save" button.

We can wait to convert the state of the switches (as they appear in the UI) to a Preferences object until we are ready to save because we are using static cells. This means that the cells do not get allocated and removed from memory dynamically and that we can obtain @IBOutlets to controls inside each specific cell.

import UIKit

class PreferencesTableViewController: UITableViewController {

    @IBOutlet weak var autoRefreshSwitch: UISwitch!
    @IBOutlet weak var soundsSwitch: UISwitch!
    @IBOutlet weak var showPhotosSwitch: UISwitch!

    // should be set by the class that instantiates this view controller
    var currentPrefs: Preferences!

    override func viewDidLoad() {
        super.viewDidLoad()
        currentPrefs = currentPrefs ?? Preferences()
        initSwitches()
    }

    private func initSwitches() {
        autoRefreshSwitch?.on = currentPrefs.autoRefresh
        soundsSwitch?.on = currentPrefs.playSounds
        showPhotosSwitch?.on = currentPrefs.showPhotos
    }

    func preferencesFromTableData() -> Preferences {
        var newPrefs = Preferences()
        newPrefs.autoRefresh = autoRefreshSwitch.on
        newPrefs.playSounds = soundsSwitch.on
        newPrefs.showPhotos = showPhotosSwitch.on
        return newPrefs
    }
}

In our main ViewController we set up the PreferencesTableViewController with the current preferences before our segue. When coming back from the segue via the "Save" button we read off the new preferences from the switches and update our preferences object. We don't take any action if the edit was "Canceled" because the PreferencesTableViewController does not modify the preferences object we pass in.

class ViewController: UIViewController {

    @IBOutlet weak var autoRefreshLabel: UILabel!
    @IBOutlet weak var playSoundsLabel: UILabel!
    @IBOutlet weak var showPhotosLabel: UILabel!

    var preferences: Preferences = Preferences() {
        didSet {
            updateLabels()
        }
    }

    override func viewDidLoad() {
        super.viewDidLoad()
        updateLabels()
    }

    private func updateLabels() {
        autoRefreshLabel.text = preferences.autoRefresh ? "Yes" : "No"
        playSoundsLabel.text = preferences.playSounds ? "Yes" : "No"
        showPhotosLabel.text = preferences.showPhotos ? "Yes" : "No"
    }

    override func prepareForSegue(segue: UIStoryboardSegue, sender: AnyObject?) {
        if segue.identifier == "showPreferencesSegue" {
            // we wrapped our PreferencesTableViewController inside a UINavigationController
            let navController = segue.destinationViewController as UINavigationController
            let prefsVC = navController.topViewController as PreferencesTableViewController
            prefsVC.currentPrefs = self.preferences
        }
    }

    @IBAction func didSavePreferences(segue: UIStoryboardSegue) {
        if let prefsVC = segue.sourceViewController as? PreferencesTableViewController {
            self.preferences = prefsVC.preferencesFromTableData()
        }
    }

    @IBAction func didCancelPreferences(segue: UIStoryboardSegue) {
        // do nothing
    }
}

Dynamic Forms

Static cells are quite limited because single UITableView has to contain either all static cells or have all of its content be provided dynamically. For example it would not be possible to use static cells if the number of rows in any section of your table was based on data loaded at runtime.

Furthermore, you can only use static cells in Interface Builder and when your table view is backed by UITableViewController.

Challenges of tables with dynamically created form inputs

There are a few additional challenges to overcome when working with form inputs in a table with dynamic content:

  1. Since the cells are dynamically allocated, inside your view controller there is no way to obtain @IBOutlets to an form input inside a specific cell. You must arrange a way for the cells to read the state of its own form inputs and for the view controller to get this information from the cell.

  2. Likewise, if your view controller needs to respond to events from an individual cell, you must arrange a way for the cell to propagate the event to the view controller. You cannot simply associate an @IBAction inside the view controller with an element inside a specific cell.

  3. Generally you'll be getting reusable cells to configure by calling dequeueReusableCellWithIdentifier. This means you cannot rely on the information contained in the form inputs in an individual cell to persist when it scrolls off screen. You will have to maintain all the information necessary to populate the state of all form inputs in each cell somewhere else.

  4. You'll also have to update this information immediately if the user interacts with the cell because, again, the form input itself cannot be used to to store information once the cell is no longer on the screen.

  5. If your form is used for editing data and provides a "Cancel" option, you must maintain an additional copy of the data seperate from the initial data and seperate from the current value inside the form inputs.

Example: Basic preferences page revisited

To see how these factors come into play, we'll reimplement our basic preferences page example from above to use dynamically created cells based on prototype cells instead of static cells.

As before we have a main ViewController displays the current preferences and has an "Edit Preferences" button that does a modal segue to our PreferencesViewController. The ViewController class also contains @IBActions for unwind segues that happen when the user either saves or cancels editing preferences.

We renamed our PreferencesTableViewController to PreferencesViewController. It no longer has to be a subclass of UITableViewController, and instead it only implements the UITableViewDataSource protocol. Other than replacing this type name, the code in our ViewController class remains the same as above. The code for our Preferences model has not changed from above at all.

The bulk of our changes are in PreferencesViewController. We need to maintain the temporary state of our table as we are editing our preferences outside of the cells themselves. We introduce two properties tableStructure and prefValues to keep track of this state.

We write logic to convert a Preferences object into our prefValues. This allow us to update the prefValues to store the state of table as we are editing without modifying the original Preferences object that is passed in. Likewise we have a procedure to obtain a new Preferences object from the prefValues. This allows the rest of the application to obtain an updated Preferences once the user hits "Save".

enum PrefRowIdentifier : String {
    case AutoRefresh = "Auto Refresh"
    case PlaySounds = "Play Sounds"
    case ShowPhotos = "Show Photos"
}

class PreferencesViewController: UIViewController, UITableViewDataSource, PreferenceSwitchCellDelegate {
    @IBOutlet weak var tableView: UITableView!
    let tableStructure: [[PrefRowIdentifier]] = [[.AutoRefresh], [.PlaySounds, .ShowPhotos]]
    var prefValues: [PrefRowIdentifier: Bool] = [:]

    // should be set by the class that instantiates this view controller
    var currentPrefs: Preferences! {
        didSet {
            prefValues[.AutoRefresh] = currentPrefs.autoRefresh
            prefValues[.PlaySounds] = currentPrefs.playSounds
            prefValues[.ShowPhotos] = currentPrefs.showPhotos
            tableView?.reloadData()
        }
    }

    func preferencesFromTableData() -> Preferences {
        let ret = Preferences()
        ret.autoRefresh = prefValues[.AutoRefresh] ?? ret.autoRefresh
        ret.playSounds = prefValues[.PlaySounds] ?? ret.playSounds
        ret.showPhotos = prefValues[.ShowPhotos] ?? ret.showPhotos
        return ret
    }

    override func viewDidLoad() {
        super.viewDidLoad()
        currentPrefs = currentPrefs ?? Preferences()
        tableView.dataSource = self
    }

    func numberOfSectionsInTableView(tableView: UITableView) -> Int {
        return tableStructure.count
    }

    func tableView(tableView: UITableView, titleForHeaderInSection section: Int) -> String? {
        return " "
    }

    func tableView(tableView: UITableView, numberOfRowsInSection section: Int) -> Int {
        return tableStructure[section].count
    }

    func tableView(tableView: UITableView, cellForRowAtIndexPath indexPath: NSIndexPath) -> UITableViewCell {
        let cell = tableView.dequeueReusableCellWithIdentifier("PreferenceSwitchCell") as PreferenceSwitchCell
        let prefIdentifier = tableStructure[indexPath.section][indexPath.row]
        cell.prefRowIdentifier = prefIdentifier
        cell.onOffSwitch.on = prefValues[prefIdentifier]!
        cell.delegate = self
        return cell
    }

    func preferenceSwitchCellDidToggle(cell: PreferenceSwitchCell, newValue: Bool) {
        prefValues[cell.prefRowIdentifier] = newValue
    }
}

Finally we need a way for our custom cell containing a single switch to know which preference it represents and to notify our view controller immediately once its switch is toggled. We do this by implementing a custom PreferenceSwitchCell class with a corresponding delegate PreferenceSwitchCellDelegate that is implemented by our PreferencesViewController.

The action of the switch in our protoype cell is connected to our code in PreferenceSwitchCell by an @IBAction. We notify our view controller once this event is triggered by propagating the change through the delegate.

protocol PreferenceSwitchCellDelegate: class {
    func preferenceSwitchCellDidToggle(cell: PreferenceSwitchCell, newValue:Bool)
}

class PreferenceSwitchCell: UITableViewCell {
    @IBOutlet weak var descriptionLabel: UILabel!
    @IBOutlet weak var onOffSwitch: UISwitch!

    weak var delegate: PreferenceSwitchCellDelegate?

    var prefRowIdentifier: PrefRowIdentifier! {
        didSet {
            descriptionLabel?.text = prefRowIdentifier?.rawValue
        }
    }

    @IBAction func didToggleSwitch(sender: AnyObject) {
        delegate?.preferenceSwitchCellDidToggle(self, newValue: onOffSwitch.on)
    }
}
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