Using Defined Properties for Better AngularJS Directives

On Directives

Directives in AngularJS are an exemplary solution for writing reusable components in modern web applications. They allow us to encapsulate all the messy business logic and expose a very clean, declarative interface to consumers of the API. As with most tools for constructing abstractions, however, directives have certain limitations that can lead to implementation details leaking through, resulting in code that less DRY and, consequently, less maintainable.

There are, however, ways to work around these shortcomings and to build simpler, more expressive interfaces to our directives. Leveraging a lesser known feature of JavaScript, we can encapsulate additional details of our business logic. This method is also well suited for building on top of third party directives with a complex API by abstracting the details into a business object. In doing so, our markup will become more in line with the ideal in AngularJS, which promotes declarative code over imperative. Without further ado, let us look at the current situation and how we can improve our directives.

Motivation and Shortcomings

The original motivation for this method arose when working with tabs component of AngularUI Bootstrap. Its <tabset> directive provides three settings with clearly overlapping concerns: active, select(), and deselect(). This redundancy forces users of the API to not only create functions in addition to the active flag, but more importantly, to declare them in the markup. We repeat this for all tabs in a given application, leading to additional maintenance effort.

This example also exhibits a significant issue with directives and two-way binding in AngularJS. If we want the active flag to be programmatically determined, e.g. if we have push notifications from the server to affect the active state of our tabs, we are required to use a $watch in our controller to set the attribute on our object — something like the following:

angular.controller("TabsController", ["$scope", "TabModel", function($scope, TabModel) {
  $scope.$watch(TabModel.activeFn, function(val) {
    $scope.isTabActive = val;

This boilerplate quickly accumulates, making our controllers fatter than they optimally should be. We could move this logic into our service layer, but that only deflects, not fundamentally solves, the issue. One may surmise that, perhaps, instead we could supply a function, but the two-way binding mechanism for directives requires that the property we specify be assignable. As such, we cannot use our function as is to pass the value through the' interface of the directive.

A Solution

There is, however, a very simple way to circumvent both these issues with one fairly small change. Introduce the Object.defineProperty method, part of the ECMAScript-262 standard. This extremely powerful method gives us the ability to define custom properties on an object and control aspects of it otherwise not available, such as its enumerability and whether or not it can be written. For our purposes, the most important functionality is the ability to define custom setter and getter methods for our property in a manner that is completely transparent to users of the object.

We write a wrapper function for instances of our tab models, which need not be the same type of service. This wrapper defines an active property to handle both activating and deactivating the tab. We can also extend the default wrapper to do additional work for us. In this case, we add a notify method to the TabWrapper class which prevents notifications from being displayed on the currently active tab, but could also be used to perform other operations, such as automatically triggering updates in the model.

app.service("TabWrapper", function() {
  function TabWrapper(tabModel) {
    this.model = tabModel;

    Object.defineProperty(this, "active", {
      get: function() {

      set: function(val) {
        if (val && tabModel.activate) {
        } else if (!val && tabModel.deactivate) {
        } = val;

  TabWrapper.prototype.notify = function() {
    return ! &&
      this.model.notify &&

  return TabWrapper;

In short, what we have accomplished is hiding all the details of how our tabs operate in our service layer without any of it leaking into our controllers or templates. So long as our services follow the simple interface defined by TabWrapper, they will function seamlessly.

N.B. Using a wrapper class is a somewhat naive way of accomplishing this technique, but it works well enough for these purposes. For a comprehensive treatment on the subject of object composition and extension in JavaScript, I cannot recommend highly enough Reginald Braithwaite's treatise on the topic: JavaScript Spessore .

An Example

Open in Plunkr

Using the above service, we can construct a complete example of how this process works. This example underscores all of the advantages discussed above.

var app = angular.module("DefinedPropertyExample", ["ui.bootstrap"]);

app.service("TabModel", ["$timeout", function($timeout) {
  function TabModel() { = false;
    this.notification = false;

  TabModel.prototype.activate = function() {
    this.content = "Some lazy content";

  TabModel.prototype.deactivate = function() {
    this.notification = false;

    var self = this;
    $timeout(function() {
      self.notification = true;
    }, Math.floor(Math.random() * 5000));

  TabModel.prototype.notify = function() {
    return this.notification;

  return TabModel;

app.controller("TabsCtrl", ["$scope", "TabModel", "TabWrapper", function($scope, TabModel, TabWrapper) {
  $scope.tabs = [];

  for (var i = 0; i < 5; i++) {
    $scope.tabs[i] = new TabWrapper(new TabModel());
<body ng-app="DefinedPropertyExample">
  <div ng-controller="TabsCtrl">
      <tab ng-repeat="tab in tabs track by $index" active="">
          Tab { { $index + 1 } }
          <span ng-if="tab.notify()">!</span>

        { { tab.model.content } }

First, we create a service object to drive our tabs. This model conforms to the interface we have specified, namely the activate, deactivate, and notify methods, although our wrapper allows any or all of these to be omitted. The activate method defines the content for our tab lazily, as though it were being loaded from a server. The deactivate method resets any active notification and creates a $timeout that will activate the notification within five seconds, as though notifications were streaming from a server. And, finally, the notify method simply returns the notification property, but is written as a function so that it would be possible to easily extend it to accumulate data from subordinate objects if ever necessary.

Our controller simply creates five of these tabs and wraps them. Our template iterates over and displays them. We can see the first activate function operate immediately, given the content being displayed in the first tab. After changing tabs, we see an exclamation point appear next to any tabs with notifications, which is then reset when reactivated (recall, this latter point is handled by the wrapper).


The markup is cleaner, the controller knows nothing about the tabs, and all our business logic exists in more or less pure JavaScript objects. All these points are massive gains for maintainability, but the latter merits some emphasis. Pushing as much of our logic down into simple, decoupled objects facilitates writing tests — a practice that can use as much facilitation as possible. Ultimately, any time we can find abstractions of this nature, they will benefit the long term viability of our AngularJS applications.