GraphQL Interfaces vs Unions

Dan Palmer
28 October, 2018

GraphQL’s type system allows us to make many invalid states impossible to represent, which improves the usability and reliability of our APIs. Two features of the type system that contribute significantly to this are Interfaces and Unions, however they can be used to address similar design considerations so it’s not always obvious which is the right option.

In this post we’ll look at several examples from the Thread API, and explore whether using an interface or a union is the right option. It’s not always obvious, and in some cases we got it wrong the first time, but after reading this post we hope you’ll have more tools to hand to help you choose the option that’s the best fit in each circumstance.

“Ideas Feed” content – a Union

The first example we’re going to cover is the Thread Ideas Feed. This is a feed of content that can come in different types. These content items represent recommendations from the user’s stylist contain products and personalised descriptions. In the future we want to experiment with many more types of content than the Collections and Combinations that we have at the moment.

The items we have in the feed, “Ideas”, currently have some common fields such as the date time they were created, a stylist, a photo, a title, etc. Given all these shared fields it’s tempting to define the ideas as an interface:

type IdeasFeed {
    ideas: [Idea!]!
}
 
interface Idea {
    title: String!
    description: String!
    image: URL!
    stylist: Stylist!
    created: DateTime!
    products: [Product!]!
}
 
type Collection implements Idea {
}
 
type Combination implements Idea {
}

However, this doesn't feel like a great implementation. We’ve ended up with two empty types for the different kinds of ideas. This suggests that we should have used an IdeaType enum and made Idea a type instead of an interface.

This alternative wouldn't take us very far though. Consider adding a type StyleQuiz that asks users a few questions about their style preferences. This would not have any products, so we’d need to return an empty list of products. It might not have an image, so we’d need to update our interface to allow for a nullable image URL. Considering this new type, the interface pattern begins to break down. Radically different types such as this would result in an explosion of nullable fields – either on the Idea type if we used an enum, or on the interface.

Lastly, an interface doesn’t reflect how we want clients to use these types. This is because feed items may have the same fields, but the design of them and how the user interacts with them may be completely different. We might create a new content type that should be rendered in a very different way, but which the client might not recogise and might render in an existing style or layout. This could be fixed by the client checking the __typename field, but as this isn’t enforced by the API, it’s easy to get wrong, rather than easy to get right.

Some requirements are forming here:

  1. Clients should understand the exact content type they are rendering, and how to render it, rather than using the fields on that content in generic ways.
  2. Feed items must be able to have radically different formats, without losing type safety.

A design based around Unions may be a better fit here:

type IdeasFeed {
    ideas: [Idea!]!
}
 
union Idea = Collection | Combination 
 
type Collection {
    title: String!
    description: String!
    image: URL!
    stylist: Stylist!
    created: DateTime!
    products: [Product!]!
}
 
type Combination {
    title: String!
    description: String!
    image: URL!
    stylist: Stylist!
    created: DateTime!
    products: [Product!]!
}

This looks like a lot of repeated structure, and right now it is, but because the fields must be accessed through the different types and not through a common interface, it forces the client to understand them. This is illustrated by these two queries in the client. With an interface:

query { 
    ideasFeed { 
        ideas { 
            title 
            description 
            image 
            stylist 
            created 
            products 
        } 
    } 
}

and with the union:

query { 
    ideasFeed { 
        ideas { 
            ... on Collection { 
                title 
                description 
                image 
                stylist 
                created 
                products 
            } 
            ... on Combination { 
                title 
                description 
                image 
                stylist 
                created 
                products 
            } 
        } 
    } 
}

In a situation where collections and combinations look very different in the feed (even though they have the same fields), this is a key piece of documentation in the API, and makes it difficult to use the API incorrectly. This addresses the first requirement we had.

To address the second point in our requirements, this now makes it much easier to get the full type safety on new types of content. To use the example of a Style Quiz, rather than having to make products, image, and stylist all nullable so that it can conform to the interface, or even worse, rather than providing useless or contrived data in those fields, we can encode exactly what we want.

union Idea = Collection | Combination | StyleQuiz 
 
type StyleQuiz {
    title: String!
    questions: [Question!]!
}

In this case a union has worked for us because there is nothing fundamentally shared in our use case. There are instances where there may be shared fields, and in fact in all the types we have at the moment the fields are all shared, but the use-case is that we have data types that are totally independent. While it felt that an interface made sense given the number of shared fields, it didn’t make sense in the design of the API and for how we want clients to use it. It would fail to document the fact that these types should be treated separately.

Cart line items – an Interface

The second example we’re going to cover is line items in a shopping cart.

Line items are things that contribute to a total. They could be a product, or they could be the shipping cost, or even a gift voucher. These are all quite different types of data, and our clients would likely render them in totally different ways, which is why we first wrote the cart as:

type Cart {
    lineItems: [LineItem!]!
    total: Int!
}
 
union LineItem = Product | Shipping | GiftVoucher 
 
type Product {
    name: String!
    price: Int!
    size: String!
}
 
type Shipping {
    price: Int!
    nextDay: Boolean!
}
 
type GiftVoucher {
    amount: Int!
    code: String!
}

(These types have been simplified, to not include irrelevant details)

Our expectation was that the client would read these out and render each line item in a different way. We show products as a block with an image, name, size, etc, we show shipping as a banner indicating if you have free shipping, gift vouchers are a subtraction at the bottom, and the total is the last entry.

This could be better though. We have two core requirements:

  1. The cart total value must be correct.
  2. Everything contributing to the total must be presented to the user.

The first is difficult to get right because the total is presented as a separate field – the total, and the prices of the line items could theoretically get out of sync.

The second is also difficult to get right in a world where we have clients running old code. This API will be used in a mobile app, and if that app hasn’t been updated to handle, say, a site-wide 10% off discount, then it won’t be selecting it in its query:

query { 
    cart { 
        lineItems { 
            ... on Product { 
                ...ProductFragment 
            } 
            ... on Shipping { 
                ...ShippingFragment 
            } 
            ... on GiftVoucher { 
                ...GiftVoucherFragment 
            } 
        } 
    } 
}

This means that while the total will be correct, it won’t display all components. While users might be ok with their cart being cheaper than they expected, they tend to stop buying things when it’s the other way around, so we wanted to design an API that is more resilient to server-side updates on out of date clients.

We decided to switch to using an Interface approach.

type Cart {
    lineItems: [LineItem!]!
}
 
interface LineItem {
    description: String!
    value: Int!
}
 
type Product implements LineItem {
    size: String!
}
 
type Shipping implements LineItem {
    nextDay: Boolean!
}
 
type GiftVoucher implements LineItem {
    code: String!
}

Everything in the cart implements the LineItem interface, which defines a value and a description. The value is the contribution of that line item to the cart total. For a product this will be positive, but for a Gift Voucher this would be negative, and for free shipping it might just be zero.

It is now the client’s responsibility to calculate the total by summing all of the values of the line items in the cart. The server guarantees that they will sum correctly. This still requires validation work on the server, but it means that there is only one way to get the total, and that restricts the scope for bugs, helping to address our first requirement.

The second feature of this is that because everything in the cart must implement the LineItem interface, as required by the type of the lineItems field, the client knows that everything will always have a value and a description.

This means that clients can code a fallback representation of anything that might go in the cart. If the server decides to add a new Discount type that older clients don’t support yet, they can at least render a line of text describing the line item, and show the value contribution to the cart total. This addresses our second requirement, older clients are always able to show everything in the cart.

In this case the reason an interface worked for us was because there is are attributes of line items that are fundamental to their ability to work which can be put into an interface. A union didn’t work because it relies on clients always being up to date to be able to get information out of instances in them.

User accounts – a Union of Interfaces

This brings us to the final example from Thread’s API: user accounts. There are many different types of user on Thread, we have:

  • users who signed up for the “styling experience”, this is most users
  • users who only came to buy one thing and who might come back, but for now don’t have the styling experience part of the service
  • users who closed their account.
  • users who have not authenticated themselves, so we don’t know who they are.

Users also have certain abilities that they may or may not be able to perform, depending on their account status:

  • They may be able to buy things
  • They may be able to communicate with a stylist
  • We may know their personal details so that we can address them by their name or send them an email

Most of the time clients only need to care about the presence of certain properties, not about the underlying type, but the server needs to compose those properties in different combinations.

The solution we went with here was a Union of types that conformed to interfaces.

union User = Full | Limited | Restricted | Anonymous 
 
interface Styling {
    ideasFeed: IdeasFeed!
}
 
interface Ecommerce {
    cart: Cart!
    checkout: Checkout!
}
 
interface Named {
    informalName: String!
    fullName: String!
}
 
type Full implements Styling, Ecommerce, Named {
}
 
type Limited implements Ecommerce, Named {
}
 
type Restricted implements Named {
}
 
type Anonymous implements Ecommerce {
}

This structure allows the server to return the type of user it wants, and allows the client to select fields based on how it wants to use the data.

For example, to get the cart the client could use the query:

query { 
    viewer { 
        ... on Ecommerce { 
            cart { 
                ...CartFragment 
            } 
        } 
    } 
}

Or to get the ideas feed the client could use the query:

query { 
    viewer { 
        ... on Styling { 
            ideasFeed { 
                ...IdeasFeedFragment 
            } 
        } 
    } 
}

These queries mean that the client doesn’t need to understand the types of users available, or how various site features map to those types – this is the main benefit of interfaces. However the use of a union for User means that we can have many different interfaces represented, and compose them together on different types in that union.


Hopefully these case studies provide deeper context to some of the design decisions we made in the Thread API. These are designs that we didn’t get right the first time, but after iterating the design and trying to understand how it would be used in the client and how we would evolve it over time, we managed to find the designs we currently have.

In summary:

  • Unions are good for documenting, and forcing the client to understand how different types should be treated.
  • There isn’t always an advantage to grouping shared fields into interfaces, it depends on the use-case.
  • Interfaces are good for when the types have a fundamental commonality in how they should be used.
  • Interfaces can be used to allow clients to be forwards compatible with new types that the server might introduce, which can be important for mobile apps that may not be updated frequently.
  • Unions and interfaces can be combined to compose together behaviours into more complex types, but to still allow the client to select the fields it needs in each situation.

GraphQL Interfaces vs Unions

Dan Palmer
28 October, 2018