By Ash Furrow, AJ Robidas, and Michelle Fernandez
From the perspective of web developers, React Native expands the possibilities of what a developer can create. Using the familiar React paradigm, a web developer can build user interfaces for iOS and Android apps (among other platforms). With React Native, web developers can use familiar tools to solve unfamiliar problems—what a delight!
From the perspective of native developers, both Android and iOS, React Native (RN) helps them build user interfaces much faster. And since native developers typically focus on either Android or iOS (but usually not both), React Native also offers a wider audience for developers to reach with less effort.
As we can see, React Native offers benefits to both web and native mobile developers. Another benefit is that developers get to work together with programmers from other backgrounds. Web, Android, and iOS developers can work together using React Native in a way that they couldn’t before. We know that teams staffed with a variety of backgrounds perform better than monocultures, so the result of using React Native can be better apps, built faster, and for a wider audience. Great!
Even as we see the benefits of React Native, we also need to acknowledge the challenges and concerns from developers of web and native backgrounds. It’s our hope that this blog post (written by a web developer, an Android developer, and an iOS developer) can help contextualize the React Native technology. We hope that by sharing our experiences learning React Native, we can help soothe your anxieties and empower you to explore this exciting technology.
Were You Excited to Start Using React Native?
AJ: Yes definitely. Coming from a web dev background, I was always interested in mobile development, but had no interest in going back to Java just to make android apps. I had been using React for a while already so when I heard there was a way to write mobile apps using React I was immediately interested, though I struggled to get into it on my own because I learn better with others. When I was offered a job working with React Native, I jumped at the opportunity
Michelle: I was hesitant and thought that all that I knew about native android development was going to be thrown out the window! The easier choice would have been to branch off and stay close to my native development roots doing iOS development, but I’m always up for a challenge and saying YES to new things.
Ash: I wasn’t! My previous team started using it in 2015 and I resisted. I kind of stuck my head in the sand about it because I wanted to use Swift instead. But since the company didn’t need a lot of Swift to be written, I started working on web back-ends and front-ends. That’s when I learned React and got really excited. I finally understood the value in React Native: you get to use React.
What surprised you most about React Native?
AJ: The simplicity of the building blocks. Now I know that sounds a little crazy, but in the web world there are just so many base semantic elements. <button>, <a>, <h1> to <h6>, <p>, <input>, <footer>, <img>, <ol>, etc. So when I started learning React Native, I was looking for the RN equivalents for all of these, but it just isn’t structured the same way. RN doesn’t have heading levels and paragraphs, all text is handled by the <Text> component. Buttons, links, tabs, checkboxes, and more can all be handled with <Touchable> components. Even though the structure of writing a custom component is almost exactly the same as React, it feels very different because the number of semantic building blocks goes from more than 100 down to a little more than 20.
Ash: I was surprised by how good a React Native app could be. Previous attempts at cross-platform frameworks, like PhoneGap, always felt like PhoneGap apps. They never felt like they really belonged on the OS. Software written in React Native is hard to distinguish from software written in Swift or Objective-C. I thought that the value proposition of React Native was the ability to write cross-platform apps with a single codebase, but it was only used on iOS during the five years I used it at Artsy. React Native’s declarative model is just a better way to create user interfaces, and I think we’ve seen the industry come to this consensus as SwiftUI and Jetpack Compose play catch-up.
Let’s start by exploring React Native from a web developer’s perspective. React Native uses a lot of the tooling that you, as a web developer, are already familiar with. But it also uses some brand new tools. In some ways, you might feel like you’re starting from scratch. You might struggle with the new tools to accomplish simple tasks, and that’s normal. The discomfort that comes from feeling like a beginner is normal, and it’s mitigated with help from your peers.
Android Studio and Xcode can both be intimidating, even for experienced developers who use them day-to-day. Ideally, your team has enough Android and iOS developers to build solid tooling foundations and to help you when you get stuck. At Shopify, we rarely use the Android Studio and Xcode IDEs to write React Native apps. Instead, we use Visual Studio Code for most of our work. Our mobile tooling teams created command line abstractions for tools like adb, xcodebuild, and xcrun. So you could clone a React Native repository and get a simulator running with the code without ever opening Android Studio or Xcode.
What was the most challenging part about getting used to RN?
AJ: For me it was the uncertainty. I came in confident in my React skills, but I found myself never knowing what mobile specific concerns existed, and when they might come into play. Since everything needs to be run over the RN Bridge, some aspects of web development, like CSS animations for example, just don’t really translate in a way that’s performant enough. So with no mobile development background any of those mobile specific concerns were an blind spot for me. This is an area where having coworkers from a mobile background has been a huge benefit.
Your experience as a web developer offers a perspective on how to build user interfaces that’s new to native developers. While you may be familiar with tools like node and yarn, these are very different from the tools that native developers are used to. Your familiarity, from the basics of JSX and React components to your intuition of React best practices and software patterns, will be a huge help to your native developer colleagues.
Offer your guidance and support, and ask questions. Android and iOS developers will tend to use tools they are already familiar with, even if a better cross-platform solution exists. Challenge your teammates to come up with cross-platform abstractions instead of platform-specific implementations.
What do you think would be painful about RN but turned out to be really friendly?
AJ: That's a difficult question for me, I didn’t really have anything in particular that I expected to be painful. I can say that the little bit I tried to learn RN on my own before I started at Shopify, I personally found getting the simulators and emulators set up to be painful. I was grateful when I got started here to find that the onboarding documentation and RN tutorial helped me breeze through the setup way faster than expected. I was up and running with a test app in the simulator within minutes that let me actually start learning RN right away instead of struggling with the tech.
Michelle: Coming from a native background using a powerhouse of an IDE, I thought the development process would slow me down. Thankfully, I’ve got my IDE (IntelliJ IDEA) now set up so that I can write code in React and at the same time write and inspect native kotlin code. You’d never think that a good search and replace and refactoring system would speed up your dev process by 10x but it really does.
Next, let’s explore the Android and iOS perspectives. Although the Android and iOS platforms are often seen to have an antagonistic relationship with one another, the experiences of Android and iOS developers coming to React Native are remarkably similar. As a native developer, you might feel like you’re turning your back on all the experience you’ve gained so far. But your experience building native applications is going to be a huge benefit to your React Native team! For example, you have a deep familiarity with your platform’s user interface idioms; you should use this intuition to help your team build user interfaces that “feel” like native applications.
What do you wish was better about working in RN?
AJ: Accessibility. I’m a huge accessibility advocate, I push for implementation of accessibility in anything I work on. But this is a bit of a struggle with React Native. Accessibility is an area of RN that doesn’t yet have a lot of educational material out there. A lot of the principles for web still apply, but the correct way to implement accessibility in some areas isn’t yet well established and with fewer semantic building blocks very little gets built in by default. So developers need to be even more aware and intentional about what they create.
Michelle: React Native land seems like the wild wild west after coming from languages with well established patterns and libraries as well as the documentation to support it. These do currently exist for RN but because of how new this framework is and the slow (but increasing!) adoption of it, there's still a long way to go to make it accessible for more people by providing more examples and resources to refer to.
Ash: I wish that the tools were more cohesive. Having worked in the Apple developer ecosystem for so long, I know how empowering a really polished developer tool can be. Not that Apple’s tools are perfect, far from it, but they are cohesive in a way that I miss. There’s usually one way to accomplish a task, but in React Native, I’m often left figuring things out on my own.
React Native apps are still apps and, consequently, they operate under the same conditions as native apps. Mobile devices have specific constraints and capabilities that web developers aren’t used to working with. Native developers are used to thinking about an app’s user experience as more than only the user interface. For example, native developers are keenly aware of how cellular and GPS radios impact battery life. They also know the value of integrating deeply with the operating system, like using rich push notifications or native share sheets. The same skills that help native developers ensure apps are “good citizens” of their platform are still critical to building great React Native applications.
When did opinions about React Native change?
AJ: I’m not sure I’d say I’ve had a change of opinion. I went into React Native curious and uncertain of what to expect. I’d heard good things from other web devs that I knew who had tried RN. So I felt pretty confident that I’d be able to pick it up and that I would enjoy it. If anything I would say the learning process went even smoother than anticipated.
Michelle: My opinions changed when I found that a React Native app allows us to integrate with the native SDKs we've developed at Shopify and still results in a performant app. I realized that Kotlin over the React bridge works and performs well together and still keeps up my skills in native Android development.
Ash: They changed when I built my first feature from the ground-up in React, for the web. The component model just kind of “clicked” for me. The next time I worked in Swift, everything felt so cumbersome and awkward. I was spending a lot of time writing code that didn’t make the software unique or valuable, it was just boilerplate.
Native developers are also familiar with mobile devices’ native APIs for geofencing, augmented reality, push notifications, and more. All these APIs are accessible to React Native applications, either through existing open source node modules or custom native modules that you can write. It’s your job to help your team make full and appropriate use of the device’s capabilities. A purely React Native app can be good, but it takes collaborating with native developers to make an app that’s really great.
How would you describe your experiences with React Native at Shopify?
AJ: I’ve had a great experience working with React Native at Shopify. I came in as a React dev with absolutely no mobile experience of any kind. I was pointed towards a coworker’s day long “Introduction to React Native” workshop, and it gave me a better understanding than I’d gotten from the self learning I’d attempted previously. On top of that, I have knowledgeable and supportive coworkers that are always willing to take the time out of their day to lend a hand and help fill in the gaps. Additionally the tooling created by the React Native Foundations team takes away the majority of the pain involved in getting started with React Native to begin with.
Michelle: Everything goes at super speed at Shopify—this includes learning React Native! There are so many resources within Shopify to support you including internal workshops providing a crash course to RN. Other teams are also using RN so there’s opportunity to learn from them and the best practices they’re following. Shopify also has specific mobile tooling teams to support RN in our CI environment and automation to ship to production. In addition to the mobile tooling team, there’s a specific React Native Foundations team that builds internal tools to help others get familiar and quickly spin up RN apps. We have monthly mobile team meetups to share and gain visibility into the different mobile projects built across Shopify.
Ash: I’m still very new to the company, but my experience here is really positive so far. There’s a lot of time spent on the foundations of our React Native apps—fast reload, downloadable bundles built for each pull request, lint rules that keep developers from making common mistakes—that all empower developers to move very, very quickly. In React Native, there is no compile step to interrupt a developer’s workflow. We get to develop at the speed of thought. Since Shopify invests so much in developer tooling, getting up to speed with the Shop app took no time at all.
Learning anything new, including RN, can feel intimidating, but you can learn RN. Your existing skills will help you learn, and learning it is best done in a team environment with many perspectives (which we have at Shopify, apply today!).
We see now that both web developers and native developers have different perspectives on building mobile apps with React Native, and how those perspectives complement each other. React Native teams at Shopify are generally staffed with developers from web, Android, and iOS backgrounds because the teams produce the best software when they can draw from these perspectives.
Whether you’re a web developer looking to expand the possibilities of what you can create, or you’re a native developer looking to move faster with a cross-platform technology, React Native can be a great solution. But just like any new skill, learning React Native can be intimidating. The best approach is to learn in a team environment where you can draw from the strengths of your colleagues. And if you’re keen to learn React Native in a supportive, collaborative environment, Shopify is hiring! You can also view a presentation on How We Write React Native Apps at Shopify from our Shipit! Presents series.
AJ Robidas is a developer from Ontario, Canada, with a specialization in accessibility. She has a varied background from C++ and Purl, some Python backend work, to multiple web frameworks (AngularJS, Angular, StencilJS and React). For the past year she has been a React Native developer on the Shop team implementing new and updated experiences for the Shop App
Michelle Fernandez is a senior software developer from Toronto, Canada with nearly a decade of experience in the mobile applications world. She has been working on Shopify’s Android Point of Sale app since its redesign with Shopify Polaris and has contributed to its rebuild as a React Native app from inception to launch. The Shopify POS app is now in production and used by Shopify merchants around the world.
Ash Furrow is a developer from New Brunswick, Canada, with a decade of experience building native iOS applications. He has written books on software development, has a personal blog, and currently contributes to the Shop team at Shopify.