school Are you a developer in an agency in the UK, Indonesia or India? Find out more about our free 2 day Progressive Web Apps training .

Custom Elements v1: Reusable Web Components

TL;DR

With Custom Elements, web developers can create new HTML tags, beef-up existing HTML tags, or extend the components other developers have authored. The API is the foundation of web components. It brings a web standards-based way to create reusable components using nothing more than vanilla JS/HTML/CSS. The result is less code, modular code, and more reuse in our apps.

Introduction

The browser gives us an excellent tool for structuring web applications. It's called HTML. You may have heard of it! It's declarative, portable, well supported, and easy to work with. Great as HTML may be, its vocabulary and extensibility are limited. The HTML living standard has always lacked a way to automatically associate JS behavior with your markup... until now.

Custom elements are the answer to modernizing HTML, filling in the missing pieces, and bundling structure with behavior. If HTML doesn't provide the solution to a problem, we can create a custom element that does. Custom elements teach the browser new tricks while preserving the benefits of HTML.

Defining a new element

To define a new HTML element we need the power of JavaScript!

The customElements global is used for defining a custom element and teaching the browser about a new tag. Call customElements.define() with the tag name you want to create and a JavaScript class that extends the base HTMLElement.

Example - defining a mobile drawer panel, <app-drawer>:

class AppDrawer extends HTMLElement {...}
window.customElements.define('app-drawer', AppDrawer);

// Or use an anonymous class if you don't want a named constructor in current scope.
window.customElements.define('app-drawer', class extends HTMLElement {...});

Example usage:

<app-drawer></app-drawer>

It's important to remember that using a custom element is no different than using a <div> or any other element. Instances can be declared on the page, created dynamically in JavaScript, event listeners can be attached, etc. Keep reading for more examples.

Defining an element's JavaScript API

The functionality of a custom element is defined using an ES2015 class which extends HTMLElement. Extending HTMLElement ensures the custom element inherits the entire DOM API and means any properties/methods that you add to the class become part of the element's DOM interface. Essentially, use the class to create a public JavaScript API for your tag.

Example - defining the DOM interface of <app-drawer>:

class AppDrawer extends HTMLElement {

  // A getter/setter for an open property.
  get open() {
    return this.hasAttribute('open');
  }

  set open(val) {
    // Reflect the value of the open property as an HTML attribute.
    if (val) {
      this.setAttribute('open', '');
    } else {
      this.removeAttribute('open');
    }
    this.toggleDrawer();
  }

  // A getter/setter for a disabled property.
  get disabled() {
    return this.hasAttribute('disabled');
  }

  set disabled(val) {
    // Reflect the value of the disabled property as an HTML attribute.
    if (val) {
      this.setAttribute('disabled', '');
    } else {
      this.removeAttribute('disabled');
    }
  }

  // Can define constructor arguments if you wish.
  constructor() {
    // If you define a ctor, always call super() first!
    // This is specific to CE and required by the spec.
    super();

    // Setup a click listener on <app-drawer> itself.
    this.addEventListener('click', e => {
      // Don't toggle the drawer if it's disabled.
      if (this.disabled) {
        return;
      }
      this.toggleDrawer();
    });
  }

  toggleDrawer() {
    ...
  }
}

customElements.define('app-drawer', AppDrawer);

In this example, we're creating a drawer that has an open property, disabled property, and a toggleDrawer() method. It also reflects properties as HTML attributes.

A neat feature of custom elements is that this inside a class definition refers to the DOM element itself i.e. the instance of the class. In our example, this refers to <app-drawer>. This (😉) is how the element can attach a click listener to itself! And you're not limited to event listeners. The entire DOM API is available inside element code. Use this to access the element's properties, inspect its children (this.children), query nodes (this.querySelectorAll('.items')), etc.

Rules on creating custom elements

  1. The name of a custom element must contain a dash (-). So <x-tags>, <my-element>, and <my-awesome-app> are all valid names, while <tabs> and <foo_bar> are not. This requirement is so the HTML parser can distinguish custom elements from regular elements. It also ensures forward compatibility when new tags are added to HTML.
  2. You can't register the same tag more than once. Attempting to do so will throw a DOMException. Once you've told the browser about a new tag, that's it. No take backs.
  3. Custom elements cannot be self-closing because HTML only allows a few elements to be self-closing. Always write a closing tag (<app-drawer></app-drawer>).

Extending elements

The Custom Elements API is useful for creating new HTML elements, but it's also useful for extending other custom elements or even the browser's built-in HTML.

Extending a custom element

Extending another custom element is done by extending its class definition.

Example - create <fancy-app-drawer> that extends <app-drawer>:

class FancyDrawer extends AppDrawer {
  constructor() {
    super(); // always call super() first in the ctor. This also calls the extended class' ctor.
    ...
  }

  toggleDrawer() {
    // Possibly different toggle implementation?
    // Use ES2015 if you need to call the parent method.
    // super.toggleDrawer()
  }

  anotherMethod() {
    ...
  }
}

customElements.define('fancy-app-drawer', FancyDrawer);

Extending native HTML elements

Let's say you wanted to create a fancier <button>. Instead of replicating the behavior and functionality of <button>, a better option is to progressively enhance the existing element using custom elements.

A customized built-in element is a custom element that extends one of the browser's built-in HTML tags. The primary benefit of extending an existing element is to gain all of its features (DOM properties, methods, accessibility). There's no better way to write a progressive web app than to progressively enhance existing HTML elements.

To extend an element, you'll need to create a class definition that inherits from the correct DOM interface. For example, a custom element that extends <button> needs to inherit from HTMLButtonElement instead of HTMLElement. Similarly, an element that extends <img> needs to extend HTMLImageElement.

Example - extending <button>:

// See https://html.spec.whatwg.org/multipage/indices.html#element-interfaces
// for the list of other DOM interfaces.
class FancyButton extends HTMLButtonElement {
  constructor() {
    super(); // always call super() first in the ctor.
    this.addEventListener('click', e => this.drawRipple(e.offsetX, e.offsetY));
  }

  // Material design ripple animation.
  drawRipple(x, y) {
    let div = document.createElement('div');
    div.classList.add('ripple');
    this.appendChild(div);
    div.style.top = `${y - div.clientHeight/2}px`;
    div.style.left = `${x - div.clientWidth/2}px`;
    div.style.backgroundColor = 'currentColor';
    div.classList.add('run');
    div.addEventListener('transitionend', e => div.remove());
  }
}

customElements.define('fancy-button', FancyButton, {extends: 'button'});

Notice that the call to define() changes slightly when extending a native element. The required third parameter tells the browser which tag you're extending. This is necessary because many HTML tags share the same DOM interface. <section>, <address>, and <em> (among others) all share HTMLElement; both <q> and <blockquote> share HTMLQuoteElement; etc.. Specifying {extends: 'blockquote'} lets the browser know you're creating a souped-up <blockquote> instead of a <q>. See the HTML spec for the full list of HTML's DOM interfaces.

Consumers of a customized built-in element can use it in several ways. They can declare it by adding the is="" attribute on the native tag:

<!-- This <button> is a fancy button. -->
<button is="fancy-button" disabled>Fancy button!</button>

create an instance in JavaScript:

// Custom elements overload createElement() to support the is="" attribute.
let button = document.createElement('button', {is: 'fancy-button'});
button.textContent = 'Fancy button!';
button.disabled = true;
document.body.appendChild(button);

or use the new operator:

let button = new FancyButton();
button.textContent = 'Fancy button!';
button.disabled = true;

Here's another example that extends <img>.

Example - extending <img>:

customElements.define('bigger-img', class extends Image {
  // Give img default size if users don't specify.
  constructor(width=50, height=50) {
    super(width * 10, height * 10);
  }
}, {extends: 'img'});

Users declare this component as:

<!-- This <img> is a bigger img. -->
<img is="bigger-img" width="15" height="20">

or create an instance in JavaScript:

const BiggerImage = customElements.get('bigger-img');
const image = new BiggerImage(15, 20); // pass ctor values like so.
console.assert(image.width === 150);
console.assert(image.height === 200);

Custom element reactions

A custom element can define special lifecycle hooks for running code during interesting times of its existence. These are called custom element reactions.

Name Called when
constructor An instance of the element is created or upgraded. Useful for initializing state, settings up event listeners, or creating shadow dom. See the spec for restrictions on what you can do in the constructor.
connectedCallback Called every time the element is inserted into the DOM. Useful for running setup code, such as fetching resources or rendering. Generally, you should try to delay work until this time.
disconnectedCallback Called every time the element is removed from the DOM. Useful for running clean up code (removing event listeners, etc.).
attributeChangedCallback(attrName, oldVal, newVal) An attribute was added, removed, updated, or replaced. Also called for initial values when an element is created by the parser, or upgraded. Note: only attributes listed in the observedAttributes property will receive this callback.
adoptedCallback() The custom element has been moved into a new document (e.g. someone called document.adoptNode(el)).

The browser calls the attributeChangedCallback() for any attributes whitelisted in the observedAttributes array (see Observing changes to attributes). Essentially, this is a performance optimization. When users change a common attribute like style or class, you don't want to be spammed with tons of callbacks.

Reaction callbacks are synchronous. If someone calls el.setAttribute() on your element, the browser will immediately call attributeChangedCallback(). Similarly, you'll receive a disconnectedCallback() right after your element is removed from the DOM (e.g. the user calls el.remove()).

Example: adding custom element reactions to <app-drawer>:

class AppDrawer extends HTMLElement {
  constructor() {
    super(); // always call super() first in the ctor.
    ...
  }
  connectedCallback() {
    ...
  }
  disconnectedCallback() {
    ...
  }
  attributeChangedCallback(attrName, oldVal, newVal) {
    ...
  }
}

Define reactions if/when it make senses. If your element is sufficiently complex and opens a connection to IndexedDB in connectedCallback(), do the necessary cleanup work in disconnectedCallback(). But be careful! You can't rely on your element being removed from the DOM in all circumstances. For example, disconnectedCallback() will never be called if the user closes the tab.

Example: moving a custom element into another document, observing its adoptedCallback():

function createWindow(srcdoc) {
  let p = new Promise(resolve => {
    let f = document.createElement('iframe');
    f.srcdoc = srcdoc || '';
    f.onload = e => {
      resolve(f.contentWindow);
    };
    document.body.appendChild(f);
  });
  return p;
}

// 1. Create two iframes, w1 and w2.
Promise.all([createWindow(), createWindow()])
  .then(([w1, w2]) => {
    // 2. Define a custom element in w1.
    w1.customElements.define('x-adopt', class extends w1.HTMLElement {
      adoptedCallback() {
        console.log('Adopted!');
      }
    });
    let a = w1.document.createElement('x-adopt');

    // 3. Adopts the custom element into w2 and invokes its adoptedCallback().
    w2.document.body.appendChild(a);
  });

Properties and attributes

Reflecting properties to attributes

It's common for HTML properties to reflect their value back to the DOM as an HTML attribute. For example, when the values of hidden or id are changed in JS:

div.id = 'my-id';
div.hidden = true;

the values are applied to the live DOM as attributes:

<div id="my-id" hidden>

This is called "reflecting properties to attributes". Almost every property in HTML does this. Why? Attributes are also useful for configuring an element declaratively and certain APIs like accessibility and CSS selectors rely on attributes to work.

Reflecting a property is useful anywhere you want to keep the element's DOM representation in sync with its JavaScript state. One reason you might want to reflect a property is so user-defined styling applies when JS state changes.

Recall our <app-drawer>. A consumer of this component may want to fade it out and/or prevent user interaction when it's disabled:

app-drawer[disabled] {
  opacity: 0.5;
  pointer-events: none;
}

When the disabled property is changed in JS, we want that attribute to be added to the DOM so the user's selector matches. The element can provide that behavior by reflecting the value to an attribute of the same name:

...

get disabled() {
  return this.hasAttribute('disabled');
}

set disabled(val) {
  // Reflect the value of `disabled` as an attribute.
  if (val) {
    this.setAttribute('disabled', '');
  } else {
    this.removeAttribute('disabled');
  }
  this.toggleDrawer();
}

Observing changes to attributes

HTML attributes are a convenient way for users to declare initial state:

<app-drawer open disabled></app-drawer>

Elements can react to attribute changes by defining a attributeChangedCallback. The browser will call this method for every change to attributes listed in the observedAttributes array.

class AppDrawer extends HTMLElement {
  ...

  static get observedAttributes() {
    return ['disabled', 'open'];
  }

  get disabled() {
    return this.hasAttribute('disabled');
  }

  set disabled(val) {
    if (val) {
      this.setAttribute('disabled', '');
    } else {
      this.removeAttribute('disabled');
    }
  }

  // Only called for the disabled and open attributes due to observedAttributes
  attributeChangedCallback(name, oldValue, newValue) {
    // When the drawer is disabled, update keyboard/screen reader behavior.
    if (this.disabled) {
      this.setAttribute('tabindex', '-1');
      this.setAttribute('aria-disabled', 'true');
    } else {
      this.setAttribute('tabindex', '0');
      this.setAttribute('aria-disabled', 'false');
    }
    // TODO: also react to the open attribute changing.
  }
}

In the example, we're setting additional attributes on the <app-drawer> when a disabled attribute is changed. Although we're not doing it here, you could also use the attributeChangedCallback to keep a JS property in sync with its attribute.

Element upgrades

Progressively enhanced HTML

We've already learned that custom elements are defined by calling customElements.define(). But this doesn't mean you have to define + register a custom element all in one go.

Custom elements can be used before their definition is registered.

Progressive enhancement is a feature of custom elements. In other words, you can declare a bunch of <app-drawer> elements on the page and never invoke customElements.define('app-drawer', ...) until much later. This is because the browser treats potential custom elements differently thanks to unknown tags. The process of calling define() and endowing an existing element with a class definition is called "element upgrades".

To know when a tag name becomes defined, you can use window.customElements.whenDefined(). It vends a Promise that resolves when the element becomes defined.

customElements.whenDefined('app-drawer').then(() => {
  console.log('app-drawer defined');
});

Example - delay work until a set of child elements are upgraded

<share-buttons>
  <social-button type="twitter"><a href="...">Twitter</a></social-button>
  <social-button type="fb"><a href="...">Facebook</a></social-button>
  <social-button type="plus"><a href="...">G+</a></social-button>
</share-buttons>

// Fetch all the children of <share-buttons> that are not defined yet.
let undefinedButtons = buttons.querySelectorAll(':not(:defined)');

let promises = [...undefinedButtons].map(socialButton => {
  return customElements.whenDefined(socialButton.localName);
));

// Wait for all the social-buttons to be upgraded.
Promise.all(promises).then(() => {
  // All social-button children are ready.
});

Element-defined content

Custom elements can manage their own content by using the DOM APIs inside element code. Reactions come in handy for this.

Example - create an element with some default HTML:

customElements.define('x-foo-with-markup', class extends HTMLElement {
  connectedCallback() {
    this.innerHTML = "<b>I'm an x-foo-with-markup!</b>";
  }
  ...
});

Declaring this tag will produce:

<x-foo-with-markup>
 <b>I'm an x-foo-with-markup!</b>
</x-foo-with-markup>

Creating an element that uses Shadow DOM

Shadow DOM provides a way for an element to own, render, and style a chunk of DOM that's separate from the rest of the page. Heck, you could even hide away an entire app within a single tag:

<!-- chat-app's implementation details are hidden away in Shadow DOM. -->
<chat-app></chat-app>

To use Shadow DOM in a custom element, call this.attachShadow inside your constructor:

customElements.define('x-foo-shadowdom', class extends HTMLElement {
  constructor() {
    super(); // always call super() first in the ctor.

    // Attach a shadow root to the element.
    let shadowRoot = this.attachShadow({mode: 'open'});
    shadowRoot.innerHTML = `
      <style>:host { ... }</style> <!-- look ma, scoped styles -->
      <b>I'm in shadow dom!</b>
      <slot></slot>
    `;
  }
  ...
});

Example usage:

<x-foo-shadowdom>
  <p><b>User's</b> custom text</p>
</x-foo-shadowdom>

<!-- renders as -->
<x-foo-shadowdom>
  <b>I'm in shadow dom!</b>
  <slot></slot>
</x-foo-shadowdom>

Creating elements from a <template>

For those unfamiliar, the <template> element allows you to declare fragments of DOM which are parsed, inert at page load, and can be activated later at runtime. It's another API primitive in the web components family. Templates are an ideal placeholder for declaring the structure of a custom element.

Example: registering an element with Shadow DOM content created from a <template>:

<template id="x-foo-from-template">
  <style>
    p { color: orange; }
  </style>
  <p>I'm in Shadow DOM. My markup was stamped from a &lt;template&gt;.</p>
</template>

<script>
  customElements.define('x-foo-from-template', class extends HTMLElement {
    constructor() {
      super(); // always call super() first in the ctor.
      let shadowRoot = this.attachShadow({mode: 'open'});
      const t = document.querySelector('#x-foo-from-template');
      const instance = t.content.cloneNode(true);
      shadowRoot.appendChild(instance);
    }
    ...
  });
</script>

These few lines of code pack a punch. Let's understanding the key things going on:

  1. We're defining a new element in HTML: <x-foo-from-template>
  2. The element's Shadow DOM is created from a <template>
  3. The element's DOM is local to the element thanks to Shadow DOM
  4. The element's internal CSS is scoped to the element thanks to Shadow DOM

Styling a custom element

Even if your element defines its own styling using Shadow DOM, users can style your custom element from their page. These are called "user-defined styles".

<!-- user-defined styling -->
<style>
  app-drawer {
    display: flex;
  }
  panel-item {
    transition: opacity 400ms ease-in-out;
    opacity: 0.3;
    flex: 1;
    text-align: center;
    border-radius: 50%;
  }
  panel-item:hover {
    opacity: 1.0;
    background: rgb(255, 0, 255);
    color: white;
  }
  app-panel > panel-item {
    padding: 5px;
    list-style: none;
    margin: 0 7px;
  }
</style>

<app-drawer>
  <panel-item>Do</panel-item>
  <panel-item>Re</panel-item>
  <panel-item>Mi</panel-item>
</app-drawer>

You might be asking yourself how CSS specificity works if the element has styles defined within Shadow DOM. In terms of specificity, user styles win. They'll always override element-defined styling. See the section on Creating an element that uses Shadow DOM.

Pre-styling unregistered elements

Before an element is upgraded you can target it in CSS using the :defined pseudo-class. This is useful for pre-styling a component. For example, you may wish to prevent layout or other visual FOUC by hiding undefined components and fading them in when they become defined.

Example - hide <app-drawer> before it's defined:

app-drawer:not(:defined) {
  /* Pre-style, give layout, replicate app-drawer's eventual styles, etc. */
  display: inline-block;
  height: 100vh;
  opacity: 0;
  transition: opacity 0.3s ease-in-out;
}

After <app-drawer> becomes defined, the selector (app-drawer:not(:defined)) no longer matches.

Misc details

Unknown elements vs. undefined custom elements

HTML is lenient and flexible to work with. For example, declare <randomtagthatdoesntexist> on a page and the browser is perfectly happy accepting it. Why do non-standard tags work? The answer is the HTML specification allows it. Elements that are not defined by the specification get parsed as HTMLUnknownElement.

The same is not true for custom elements. Potential custom elements are parsed as an HTMLElement if they're created with a valid name (includes a "-"). You can check this in a browser that supports custom elements. Fire up the Console: Ctrl+Shift+J (or Cmd+Opt+J on Mac) and paste in the following lines of code:

// "tabs" is not a valid custom element name
document.createElement('tabs') instanceof HTMLUnknownElement === true

// "x-tabs" is a valid custom element name
document.createElement('x-tabs') instanceof HTMLElement === true

API reference

The customElements global defines useful methods for working with custom elements.

define(tagName, constructor, options)

Defines a new custom element in the browser.

Example

customElements.define('my-app', class extends HTMLElement { ... });
customElements.define(
  'fancy-button', class extends HTMLButtonElement { ... }, {extends: 'button'});

get(tagName)

Given a valid custom element tag name, returns the element's constructor. Returns undefined if no element definition has been registered.

Example

let Drawer = customElements.get('app-drawer');
let drawer = new Drawer();

whenDefined(tagName)

Returns a Promise that resolves when the custom element is defined. If the element is already defined, resolve immediately. Rejects if the tag name is not a valid custom element name

Example

customElements.whenDefined('app-drawer').then(() => {
  console.log('ready!');
});

History and browser support

If you've been following web components for the last couple of years, you'll know that Chrome 36+ implemented a version of the Custom Elements API that uses document.registerElement() instead of customElements.define(). That's now considered a deprecated version of the standard, called v0. customElements.define() is the new hotness and what browser vendors are starting to implement. It's called Custom Elements v1.

If you happen to be interested in the old v0 spec, check out the html5rocks article.

Browser support

Chrome 54 (status) and Safari 10.1 (status) have Custom Elements v1. Edge has begun prototyping. Mozilla has an open bug to implement.

To feature detect custom elements, check for the existence of window.customElements:

const supportsCustomElementsV1 = 'customElements' in window;

Polyfill

Until browser support is widely available, there's a polyfill available.

Note: the :defined CSS pseudo-class cannot be polyfilled.

Install it:

bower install --save webcomponents/custom-elements

Usage:

function loadScript(src) {
 return new Promise(function(resolve, reject) {
   const script = document.createElement('script');
   script.src = src;
   script.onload = resolve;
   script.onerror = reject;
   document.head.appendChild(script);
 });
}

// Lazy load the polyfill if necessary.
if (!supportsCustomElementsV1) {
  loadScript('/bower_components/custom-elements/custom-elements.min.js').then(e => {
    // Polyfill loaded.
  });
} else {
  // Native support. Good to go.
}

Conclusion

Custom elements give us a new tool for defining new HTML tags in the browser and creating reusable components. Combine them with the other new platform primitives like Shadow DOM and <template>, and we start to realize the grand picture of Web Components:

  • Cross-browser (web standard) for creating and extending reusable components.
  • Requires no library or framework to get started. Vanilla JS/HTML FTW!
  • Provides a familiar programming model. It's just DOM/CSS/HTML.
  • Works well with other new web platform features (Shadow DOM, <template>, CSS custom properties, etc.)
  • Tightly integrated with the browser's DevTools.
  • Leverage existing accessibility features.