Friday, 9 May 2008

Lay a Wizard over your controllers

Adding a wizard interface to a pre-existing system

Our system requires a user to enter in a large data set and several preferences to complete their order. It all works ok, but new users can get confused when presented with a busy and convoluted screen full of scaffolds and forms - which the initial (advanced) interface currently looks like. So we decided to add a step-by-step "create your order" wizard to help new users get an idea of what they need to do in order to create, edit and submit their orders.

As it happens - the ordering (and number) of steps in the middle don't matter too much. It's all just entering random bits of information. As long as the user creates the order at the beginning and submits it at the end - it doesn't matter if they add their widgets first, or set up their preferences first. In fact, given we don't care about the specifics of the steps it makes some sense to make sure this wizard is highly flexible.

Lucky for us - Ruby gives us that luxury.

Now, we already know the system does all of the existing parts of the process - it's currently happily creating/updating and submitting orders as we speak. So "all we need" is a new overlay of views and a new path through the controllers.

But how to do that in a nicely independant way?

First - make thy controller

We'll need one of those, and we'll need an action for each step in the process - plus an index action thrown in for good measure. So lets start with:

script/generate  controller WizardController create_order add_widgets specify_preferences review_and_submit index

Adding an action per step lets us make nice, named routes that look good in the URL-bar for our user. They also make routing easy. We only need to add the route:

map.wizard '/orders/:id/wizard/:action', :controller => 'wizard', :id => nil

Note that this is great for all actions on an existing order thats saved in the db and has its own id. However, a new order won't have an id yet, so we'll need a route to cover that too:

map.new_wizard '/orders/new/wizard/', :controller => 'wizard', :action => 'index'

Here's the basic wizard controller. Note that we try to fetch out the order before each step with a common before_filter. The "index" action will dump the user into the second wizard-step if they specify an existing order id. This is so they can come back to the interface from, say, a list of orders and not get dropped (confusingly) on the "new order" page.

# controls the "new order wizard" functionality
class WizardController < ApplicationController
  # this list holds the current ordering of the wizard steps. It's used by the 
  # workflow-display code and anything that needs to know what the "next step" is
  WIZARD_STEPS = [:create_order, :add_widgets, :specify_preferences, :review_and_submit]

  before_filter :login_required
  before_filter :prep_for_step

  # the various steps in the process of the wizard
  # Note - they are named, rather than numbered so that they can be
  # adjusted/renamed/removed without worrying about their ordering.
  # There's no code as most of them all operate simply off the order 
  # (which is fetched out for every step) and have a same-name template
  def create_order
  def add_widgets
  def specify_preferences
  def review_and_submit
  def index
    # if we've found an existing order, go straight to the first data-entering step
    return render(:action => WIZARD_STEPS[1]) if @order
    render :action => WIZARD_STEPS.first # otherwise begin at the beginning

  private ############################################################
  # preload the order, if an id has been passed  in - or create a temporary one if not.
  def prep_for_step
    return false unless logged_in? # to be sure, to be sure
    @order = current_user.orders.find(params[:id]) unless params[:id].blank?
    @order ||= => current_user)
    @wizard_step = params[:wizard_step] # save current step to pass into templates

Make a template for each step

Each action will need an associated template showing the options available to a user for that step of the process. This template will probably import partials from your pre-existing views. After all, you're laying this interface over an existing one - so template re-use is a Good Thing. The view re-use gives similar operations a common appearance across both the wizard and advanced interfaces. This helps a user make the step from the simple to the complex interface, due to a pre-existing familiarity with the appearance.

So why not just use the same views as your existing system? There are a few benefits to having separate wizard templates.

First is to provide a unifying, common "wizard interface". Eg a visualisation showing where the user is in the process workflow. Possibly ven a subtle change in the page style to make sure a user knows when they are "in the wizard" as opposed to the rest of the site. Clues as to orientation are surprisingly helpful, especially to new users who are unfamilliar with the layout and content of your site. Every bit helps.

Second - this interface should contain extra instructions on the requirements of the current step. You know for a fact that the wizard will be used by the novice users of your system - so make sure you support their needs by providing extra help. The purpose of this wizard is to hand-hold your newbies through a difficult and complex procedure. Now that you've cut it up into bite-sized pieces, make sure you don't let them down by failing to explain each step.

Finally, the wizard interface should be much simpler than the normal view templates. As aleady stated, these users will be brand-new to your site. They don't want the advanced power-user features just yet - they just want to know how to get started. Any highly complex extras should be left out. You can keep the advanced uber-functions for when you user is confident enough to move beyond the wizard to your standard (now advanced) interface. Just keep the bare minimum that a user will need for this wizard to be functional, without crippling it so badly as to be useless. ;)

Displaying the workflow

Your user will need to know: a) what steps are in the wizard b) what step they are currently on. This is basically just a fancy tab-navigation structure, with the current one highlighted. I've covered this sort of thing in my tabbed navigation articles, so I won't repeat the details here.

You will need to store the set of steps somewhere accessible. In this case, we figured it made most sense to store the list as a constant in the WizardController itself. I also recommend using little images of right-facing arrows in between each "tab" to give the perception of flow.

I generally add a step-specific overview (eg "In this step, add widgets to your order") to get the user oriented. For us this goes directly underneath this tab-list so there's an obvious visual connection between the overview and the current-step. Don't make it long or it won't get read. Brevity gets the point across better!

Interfacing with the existing controllers

So, we have nifty templates that display what a user should be updating next - eg a list of possible widgets for the user to add to their order. So when they click on the "add widget" button - what happens next?

We already have an "add widget" action in our WidgetsController and we want to re-use that because duplicating controller functionality is just a nasty maintenance nightmare waiting to happen. So, the forms that are displayed on the templates need to point at the usual controller actions just like your original views. The problem is that when the WidgetController's "create" action is done, it's likely to send the user on to "order_widgets_path" (just like normal) - when we really want it to come back to the current step in the wizard.

So - how does the WidgetController know we want the wizard instead of the usual control path? and if so - how do we know what step of the wizard we need to pass on to? and finally, can we do all this without becoming terribly hard-coded and brittle?

Firstly, we can tell the other controller that we are coming from the wizard by passing the current wizard step in a variable in the required forms/links thus:

  <% button_opts = {:order_id =>, :escape => false, 
                    'wizard_step' => 'add_widgets' } -%>
  <%= button_to('Add to order', new_order_widget_path(button_opts.merge(:id => -%>

This will probably require some hacking on any existing partials that have embedded forms to add a field-repeater eg:

  <%= hidden_field_tag('wizard_step', @wizard_step) if @wizard_step -%>

Now you can add a check in the relevant controller actions that tests if this step is present. If so, we need to go back to the given wizard step... but checking specifically for param[:wizard_step] is a bit nasty. What happens if we have to change how we specify that we're currently executing a wizard-step? So pull it into a common method that does a "test and redirect" thus:

In application.rb:

  # redirects the user on to the given step in the wizard process
  def redirect_to_wizard_step(the_id, step)
    return false unless current_wizard_step # allow controller to continue on as normal
    redirect_to wizard_path(:id => the_id, :action => current_wizard_step)
    return true

  # Redisplays the current step in the wizard process.
  # Note: only use this if the current action was *not* successful.
  def redisplay_current_wizard_step(the_id)
    return false unless current_wizard_step # allow controller to continue on as normal
    # render template is necessary as we are likely not coming via the
    # wizard controller
    render :template => "wizard/#{current_wizard_step}"
    return true

  def current_wizard_step

In WidgetController:

  def create
    @widget =[:widget])
    @widget.order_id = params[:order_id]
    # to re-render wizard-step in view - if present
    @wizard_step = current_wizard_step 
    respond_to do |format|
        format.html { 
         # if we came here through the wizard - move on via the wizard process
          return if redirect_to_current_wizard_step(
          redirect_to order_path(@widget.order) }
        format.xml  { head :created, :location => order_widget_path(@widget.order, @widget) }
        format.html { 
         return if redisplay_current_wizard_step(
          render :action => "new" }
        format.xml  { render :xml => @widget.errors.to_xml }

That's about it - happy wizarding.


Anonymous said...

Hi, I am a newbie to the RoR ecosystem and was wondering if there is any sample code that shows this capability rather than pointers to other tutorials.

It would be great if there was something we could download and play with

Anonymous said...

This has to be the WORST tutorial I have read on rails; there are so many gaps, so many errors in the code, and very little detail. Thanks for the wasted 2 hours I will never get back trying to figure out what the heck you were saying!

Taryn said...

Wow - sounds like you had a rough time of it. My tutorial may well have holes in it (I wrote it a long while back).

but I have to admit that your comment suffers from at least one of the same problems as what you're claiming for my tutorial, namely missing information.

You need to tell me what the gaps and errors are - and that way I can help you out, and also fix the tutorial for future programmers.

Thanks heaps,