A JavaScript War Story

What follows is an account from the author’s experience. Some details have been changed for the usual reasons, and a poor memory has fuzzed out the rest.

UPDATE: it turns out the technique described below is known as debouncing. What an awesome name!

My last job was for a company that made case-management software. With this software, you could track all kinds of data about your case: you could categorize it, sub-categorize it, say where and when it happened, note whether it was still open, track who was responsible…all kinds of stuff, great for data fiends.

One of our customers’ favorite features was the reports, and they were pretty spiffin’. But, not being ones to rest on our laurels, we were adding pivot-table reports, so you could count the number of cases, grouped by any criteria you wanted. The input screen let the customer pick their pivot criterion, and which criteria they wanted as columns, for sub-counts. We struggled to name these UI fields — something lucid, something explanatory, something evocative — something to make them understand what kind of report they were in for. After a while, we decided to just show them: when they changed their pivot criterion, we’d run some javascript to render a skeleton report, same as the real report, but minus the data. It would save them time, and save our servers.

The javascript was pretty involved. It had to generate the same HTML as we did for the pivot table, which meant it had to know (or make up) values for each criterion, like all the case categories and sub-categories, and which sub-categories belonged to which categories. And we let the customers pivot on up to THREE, count ’em, different criteria. And it had to happen each time the user picked different pivot criteria. It took a few tricks, but we got it working. It ran slowly, maybe a few seconds, but it was quick enough, probably, especially once we threw in a little “please wait” spinner. Then we realized we needed to re-render whenever the window resized.

No biggie, I thought, and I quickly added window.onResize(reportPreview);. It worked great, except it re-rendered the report with every pixel-wide movement of the mouse, as the window was dragged to new widths and heights. Calling a function, one that runs for a few seconds, a hundred times in the time it took to widen the browser an inch, meant a locked browser. It meant “time to get more coffee,” and after, “time to fix the bug.”

I knew we could delay calling reportPreview, but we only wanted to delay it when the window was being resized — when the user changed the columns, there was no reason to wait. I was sure window.setTimeout() would do what we needed, but I didn’t want to muck up reportPreview() with it.

I’d been reading The Little Schemer lately, and noticing some striking similarities between javascript and scheme: first-class functions, and higher-order functions that take functions as arguments, and return other functions as values. It was fun reading, with its strange teacher-student dialog style. The material was better than brainteasers, and I knew it would make me a better programmer down the road, but I didn’t think of it as relevant to the day-job, as…applicable.

Then I realized higher-order functions were a way out of this. I could write a function, delay, that would wrap one long-running, slow-poke function in another function: an intermediary that you could call as many times a second as you wanted, but it would only call the slow-poke once things had settled down. delay would let us keep setTimeout out of reportPreview. Something like this:

function delay(millis, slowPoke) {
    var timeoutId = undefined;

    // This is the intermediary.  Call it lots, it won't hurt.
    return function() {
        if (timeoutId) {  // If we're waiting...
            clearTimeout(timeoutId); // re-start the clock.
        timeoutId = window.setTimeout(slowPoke, millis);

The first time you call the intermediary, it tells the window to call slowPoke after a bit, but every time you call it after that, it starts the clock over. It’s like when you’re in a five-minute time-out, and you start acting up after only three, so your mom says “Ok, buster, another five minutes.”

var fiveMinutes = 5 * 60 * 1000;
var screamAndShout = delay(fiveMinutes, function() {

screamAndShout(); // Aw nuts, I'm in time-out.

// I'll be good for as long as I can, but...
screamAndShout(); // dang, five MORE minutes!

Once delay was in place, running reportPreview when the window was resized was no problem.

function reportPreview() {
    // recursion, DOM manipulation, insanity...
window.onResize(delay(100, reportPreview));

After testing, we found that delaying it for 100 milliseconds made all the difference in the world.

Do you have a war story? Share it, and start the healing: tell a short one in the comments, or link to a longer one on your own damn blog.