JavaScript Design Patterns: Observer

— 17 minute read

Table of Contents

Observer is one of the most popular design patterns and chances are you're probably already using it. If you've ever written an event listener with addEventListener or used one of jQuery's many versions: on, delegate, live, click, etc... then you should already be comfortable with the concept. In a nutshell the Observer pattern allows a Subject to publish updates to a group of Observers. The Subject maintains a list of Observers and provides an interface for objects to register as Observers. Otherwise the Subject doesn't care who or what is listening to it. In this way the Subject is decoupled from the Observers allowing easy replacement of one Observer for another or even one Subject for another so long as it maintains the same lexicon of events/notifications.

Formal Definition permalink

Define a one-to-many dependency between objects so that when one object changes state, all its dependents are notified and updated automatically.

Also Known As permalink

  • Dependents
  • Publish-Subscribe

When to use it permalink

  • When the state or actions of one object depends on the state or actions of another object.

  • When changing one object necessitates a change to an unknown number of other objects.

  • When an object should be able to notify other objects of changes without knowing anything about these other objects.

Pros and Cons permalink

  • Pro: Very loose coupling between objects.

  • Pro: The ability to broadcast changes and updates.

  • Con: Potentially unexpected updates and sequencing issues.

The Many Faces of Observer permalink

Because of its popularity the Observer pattern often goes by a few different names. The primary objects are the Subject and the Observers though sometimes they are referred to as Publisher/Subscribers or Event Dispatcher/Listeners. Although you can definitely split hairs regarding the actual implementation of this pattern, in essence we're usually talking about the same thing. When the Subject's state changes it sends out notifications, unaware of who its Observers are. The Observers, in turn, perform some action in response to this update.

I'm going to heavily quote (*cough* plagiarize *cough*) the wonderful JavaScript Patterns by Stoyan Stefanov to sum up all the parts of an Observer/Pub-Sub relationship:

"The publisher object needs to have a property subscribers that is an array storing all subscribers. The act of subscription is merely adding to this array. When an event occurs, the publisher loops through the list of subscribers and notifies them. The notification means calling a method of the subscriber object. Therefore, when subscribing, the subscriber provides one of its methods to the publisher’s subscribe() method.

The publisher can also provide unsubscribe(), which means removing from the array of subscribers. The last important method of the publisher is publish(), which will call the subscribers’ methods."

Here is Stoyan's Pub/Sub implementation. Note that the on function accepts a context argument which allows you to set the handler's context and in turn, the value of this. We'll discuss this a bit more later.

var publisher = {
subscribers: {
any: [] // event type: subscribers
on: function(type, fn, context) {
type = type || 'any';
fn = typeof fn === 'function' ? fn : context[fn];
if (typeof this.subscribers[type] === "undefined") {
this.subscribers[type] = [];
this.subscribers[type].push({ fn: fn, context: context || this });
remove: function(type, fn, context) {
this.visitSubscribers('unsubscribe', type, fn, context);
fire: function(type, publication) {
this.visitSubscribers('publish', type, publication);
visitSubscribers: function(action, type, arg, context) {
var pubtype = type || 'any',
subscribers = this.subscribers[pubtype],
max = subscribers ? subscribers.length : 0;

for (i = 0; i < max; i += 1) {
if (action === 'publish') {
// Call our observers, passing along arguments
subscribers[i][i].context, arg);
} else {
if (subscribers[i].fn === arg && subscribers[i].context === context) {
subscribers.splice(i, 1);

In practice using the publisher might look something like this:

function handleLogin() {
console.log('we haz a users!');

publisher.subscribe('login.complete', handleLogin);

// ... .
// Elaborate user login process...


Mind the Context permalink

In JavaScript the keyword this in a function will refer to the context in which the function was called. Sometimes functions are global and sometimes they're part of a larger Object. Here's a brief example to clarify:

var foobar = {
doWork: function() {
console.log('doing some work...');

foobar.doWork(); // `this` will refer to foobar

var doWorkClone = foobar.doWork;
doWorkClone(); // `this` will refer to window

var workClones = [];
workClones[0](); // `this` will refer to the workClones Array

The first time we call doWork we do so in the context of the foobar object: foobar.doWork(). As a result the term this inside of the doWork method will refer to foobar.

The second time we call doWork we do so by referencing the method through a variable. We're calling doWork using that variable's context. But the variable is a global variable, it's just hanging out on the page! As a result this will refer to window.

In the third example we're stuffing doWork into an array, then referencing it by index, then calling it. In this context doWork is scoped to the workClones Array, since it's also an Object. A little confusing I know.

So why do I care?

Well if you go back and look at the publisher example you'll notice that we pass a function reference to be called whenever the Subject sends out a notification. In our case it looks like this: publisher.subscribe('login.complete', handleLogin); If handleLogin needs to use this we might be in a world of hurt because publisher is going to call handleLogin using itself as the value of this. Uh oh!

Preserving Context in Observer permalink

JavaScript's context switching can be really bizarre if you've never had to manage it before. To mitigate this problem we have a handful of useful strategies.

The first one, which is demonstrated in the publisher, is to pass along a context whenever we subscribe a function. This is the third argument to our publisher's on method.

on: function(type, fn, context) {
type = type || 'any';
fn = typeof fn === 'function' ? fn : context[fn];
if (typeof this.subscribers[type] === "undefined") {
this.subscribers[type] = [];
this.subscribers[type].push({ fn: fn, context: context || this });

By storing the context we ensure that when it's time to call our function, we can do so in the correct context with the correct value for this. We do this through the use of JavaScript's call method which allows us to define in which context a function should execute.

subscribers[i][i].context, arg);

This can be a very powerful feature especially for utility functions. Checkout the MDN docs for a deeper understanding of call and its cousin apply.

But what if you're not using our publisher example? What if you're using a slightly more popular library like jQuery to manage your events? Maybe you have some code that looks like this:

// Substitute `on` for `click` or `delegate` or `live` or
// whatever else you're using :)

$('.login-button').on('click', function() {
// tell the app the user is trying to log in!

Well in this case we might have to use a different approach. As anyone who's used jQuery knows, the value of this in our handler function is going to refer to the DOM element that jQuery selected. Sometimes that's really useful but other times, like in this case, it isn't going to do us much good.

Closures permalink

Closures are a powerful feature of ECMAScript and they're especially useful when passing around functions. The best definition I've found for a closure comes from this article:

The simple explanation of a Closure is that ECMAScript allows inner functions; function definitions and function expressions that are inside the function bodies of other functions. And that those inner functions are allowed access to all of the local variables, parameters and declared inner functions within their outer function(s).

So let's see that in action.

var loginController = {
init: function() {
var self = this;

$('.login-button').on('click', function() {
self.handleLogin(); // use self as a stand in for `this`
handleLogin: function() {
console.log('handling login!');

In the above example the var self exists in a kind of interesting limbo: it is part of loginController's init method and also part of the function registered as the on('click') handler. As a result, when the function is executed, self is still in the context of the loginController object and thus logs handling login!

Awesome! We've solved the issue of preserving scope, right? Well, yes but it's not our only option. Many people (myself included) find it annoying to sprinkle var self = this all over their app. To mitigate things we also have Function.bind.

Bindings permalink

The addition of Function.bind in ECMAScript 5 allows us to specify in which context a function should be called, in other words, binding that function (and the value of this) to a particular context. Let's see it in action:

var widget = {
name: 'My Awesome Widget!',
sayName: function() {

var nameFunc = widget.sayName.bind(widget);
nameFunc(); // outputs: 'My Awesome Widget!'

Calling Function.bind will actually create a closure preserving whatever scope we've passed in. It returns a clone of our original function but this time it is bound to a particular context. In the above example it's bound to the widget object. While it's cleaner than our original closure example we're still in a dilemma because we want sayName to ALWAYS be called in the context of widget. How about something like this instead: widget.sayName = widget.sayName.bind(widget); Hey, now we're talking! By overwriting our function and binding it to our widget object we've gotten very close to how classical languages like Java and Actionscript handle scope! This means it's easy to both subscribe and unsubscribe our method, safe in the knowledge that it will always use the proper scope. If you're lazy (like me) take some time to research Underscore.js which provides both bind and bindAll functions to ease the process of connecting your methods to their parent objects.

I'll save you the speech on treating JavaScript like other languages except to say anytime you're writing code to make one language act like another you should obviously research whether that's the best course of action or not. In my experience I've found that binding observers can make writing event listeners much cleaner but your mileage may vary and comments/feedback are always welcome :D

Also if you want to read more on Function.bind you can do so here on MDN.

The Push and Pull Model permalink

Typically when you create a Subject/Observer relationship you'll want the Subject to send along additional information during its event dispatch. The amount of information can vary widely. Sometimes you'll want to send a lot of information and other times you'll want the observers to receive the event and then query for more information. When you're sending a lot of information it's referred to as the push model and when the Observers should query for more information it's referred to as the pull model. The Gang of Four describe the differences between the two:

The pull model emphasizes the subject’s ignorance of its observers, whereas the push model assumes subjects know something about their observers’ needs. The push model might make observers less reusable, because Subject classes make assumptions about Observer classes that might not always be true. On the other hand, the pull model may be inefficient, because Observer classes must ascertain what changed without help from the Subject.

There's no right or wrong approach but it is good to understand the differences between the two.

PubSub and Observer mixins permalink

If you want a quick, easy to use event dispatcher the PubSubJS library does a wonderful job of providing an easy to use event dispatcher. It also includes a jQuery plugin variant if that's more your style. If you're looking for something a little less global and a bit more OO checkout this utility function from JavaScript Patterns which mixes-in the publisher to other objects.

function makePublisher(o) {
var i;
for (i in publisher) {
if (publisher.hasOwnProperty(i) && typeof publisher[i] === "function") {
o[i] = publisher[i];
o.subscribers = {
any: []

Grab the Example Source permalink

  • Promise: A Promise is an observable token given from one object to another. Promises wrap an operation and notify their observers when the operation either succeeds or fails.

Gamma, Erich; Helm, Richard; Johnson, Ralph; Vlissides, John (1994-10-31). Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software. Pearson Education (USA).

Table of Contents

Thanks for reading! If you have questions or feedback please leave a comment below. - Rob

You should follow me on Twitter here.