UIResponder: An Overlooked Message-Passing Mechanism on iOS

Wow, it’s been awhile since I last posted on here! I am still doing a little bit of audio programming, but only as part of the audio system for a game/game engine I’m building from scratch. Aside from that, I’ve been doing a lot of iOS programming as part of my day job, and that got me thinking that I should diversify my blog and talk about anything programming-related that I find interesting and/or valuable. So, on to the topic at hand.

When developing an iOS app, before too long you will run into the issue of how to deliver messages or events to other parts of your app. These may include any touch events, actions, completions (e.g. as a result of async operations), or other messages, and there are several ways in which to handle these, each with their own pros/cons depending on context. Perhaps the most well-known is the delegate, which is used extensively throughout UIKit for everything from UITableViews and UICollectionViews to UITextFields and UIPickerViews. Blocks are another option that can replace delegates in some cases, and typically allow you to initialize and define behaviour all in one place without the disjointness of delegates.

For example, let’s say we have a custom lightweight table view. Blocks allow us to do this:

NSArray *match = @[@"Two", @"Four", @"Eight"];
ATableView *tv = [ATableView new];
tv.rowHeight = 44.0;
tv.data = @[@"One", @"Two", @"Three"];
tv.onSelected = ^void(NSString *item) {
    if ([match containsObject:item]) {
        // Do something...

Yet another tool at our disposal are notifications, which are handled by NSNotificationCenter on iOS (and macOS). This is a broadcast system that delivers messages to any part of your app that may be listening. However, notifications do require some resource management as observers need to be removed once they are no longer interested in being notified (or during shutdown/deactivation). This makes them a little heavy-handed for simple message passing.

I’ll also briefly mention two final options for the sake of completion (though there may be others that I’m forgetting at the moment). The target-selector action used by UIControls adds the target-selector pair to a list that the control invokes when a certain event occurs. And finally NSInvocations encapsulate the message-sending mechanism of Objective-C/Swift into an object that can be passed around and invoked by different parts of your app.

So, why UIResponder, and how does it fit into this? The UIResponder class forms the foundation of handling events in UIKit, and implements methods that respond to touch events, motion events, etc. Most importantly for our case though, is its nextResponder property. UIKit manages what is called the responder chain for all objects that inherit from UIResponder and that are currently visible or active in the app. This includes views, buttons, view controllers, the window, and even the application itself. A more detailed look at the responder chain and how each object establishes its next responder connection can be seen here, but to put it simply, responder objects “walk up” the responder chain via the nextResponder property until the event is handled or there are no responders left in the chain. This behaviour can be leveraged for sending messages between responder objects using categories on UIResponder.

As an example, let’s return to the custom table view referenced above because this is something I implemented recently in an app I am working on. Instead of using a delegate to notify an object that a row has been selected, this table view uses a category on UIResponder.

// Declared in ATableView.h
@interface UIResponder (ATableView)
- (void)fs_tableView:(ATableView *)tableView selectedRow:(ATableViewRow *)row atIndex:(NSUInteger)index;

The implementation of this method looks like this:

// Defined in ATableView.m
@implementation UIResponder (ATableView)
- (void)fs_tableView:(ATableView *)tableView selectedRow:(ATableViewRow *)row atIndex:(NSUInteger)index {
    [[self nextResponder] fs_tableView:tableView selectedRow:row atIndex:index];

In fact, that implementation is almost identical no matter how you define your method in the category. Only the method name and (possibly) signature change, but the basic mechanism of invoking it on the next responder stays the same. In several cases I have had methods that differ only by name and have the same signature ((id)sender), so the implementation can further be simplified using C macros:

#define FS_UIRESPONDER_IMPL(name)       \
- (void)name:(id)sender {               \
    [[self nextResponder] name:sender]; \

@implementation UIResponder (AControl)

And that’s it for setup! To send this event when a row has been selected, the table view would invoke this method when it detects a touch up event inside a table row. Here is how it looks in my case:

- (void)touchesEnded:(NSSet<UITouch *> *)touches withEvent:(UIEvent *)event {
    UITouch *touch = touches.allObjects.firstObject;
    if (touch) {
        CGPoint touchPoint = [touch locationInView:self];
        ATableViewRow *selectedRow = ...
        // Determine which, if any, row has been selected.
        if (selectedRow) {
            [self fs_tableView:self selectedRow:selectedRow atIndex:index];
    [super touchesEnded:touches withEvent:event];

To be notified of this message/event, any UIResponder object implements the method and handles any logic accordingly, and invokes super if the event should continue through the responder chain. In this case, it would typically be in a view controller. e.g.:

// Implemented in the view controller containing the table view
- (void)fs_tableView:(ATableView *)tableView selectedRow:(ATableViewRow *)row atIndex:(NSUInteger)index {
    // Do something...
    // Call super if needed. i.e. if an ancestor also wants to know about this event.
    // [super fs_tableView:tableView selectedRow:row atIndex:index];

This strategy is also great for when table view cells need to send messages. For example, if a cell has 1 or more buttons, you can invoke the UIResponder category method in the button’s selector to pass the event up the responder chain, which will pass through the table view, it’s superview if one exists, and on to the view controller where you can handle the event.

// Defined in ATableViewRow.m
// A UIButton either has it's action set via IBAction in Interface Builder, or added with -addTarget:action:forControlEvents:
- (IBAction)buttonPressed:(id)sender {
    [self fs_editAction:sender];

I find this to be a nice alternative to delegates or notifications when it may be somewhat cumbersome to pass instances around and when you don’t want to have to think about subscribing & unsubscribing observers for notifications. It offers similar flexibility that delegates have in that you can define the method signatures however you want with the added benefit of being able to notify more than one responder very easily.

As a final example, I used this in a custom popover bubble view to notify other views and view controllers when the popover was dismissed by the user, following a similar pattern to the –viewWillDisappear:, –viewDidDisappear: pair of methods that exist on UIViewControllers. For the custom popover, I have two category methods on UIResponder called –fs_popoverWillDismiss: and –fs_popoverDidDismiss: that are handled in the view controller that presented the popover, updating the UI with some fade animations and re-enabling some controls. For such a simple, lightweight view this is a nice, concise way for it to pass along its events.

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