Code Show and Tell: PolymorphicFinder

Joe Ferris


In the Learn app, we need to accept purchaseable items (books, screencasts, workshops, plans, and so on) as a parameter in several places. Because we’re using Rails’ polymorphic_path under the hood, these parameters come in based on the resource name, such as book_id or workshop_id. However, we need to treat them all as “purchaseables” when users are making purchases, so we need a way to find one of several possible models from one of several possible parameter names in PurchasesController and a few other places.

The logic for finding these purchaseables was previously on ApplicationController:

def requested_purchaseable
  if product_param
  elsif params[:individual_plan_id]
    IndividualPlan.where(sku: params[:individual_plan_id]).first
  elsif params[:team_plan_id]
    TeamPlan.where(sku: params[:team_plan_id]).first
  elsif params[:section_id]
    raise "Could not find a purchaseable object from given params: #{params}"

def product_param
  params[:product_id] ||
    params[:screencast_id] ||
    params[:book_id] ||

This method was problematic in a few ways:

  • ApplicationController is a typical junk drawer, and it’s unwise to feed it.
  • The method grew in complexity as we added more purchaseables to the application.
  • Common problems, such as raising exceptions for bad IDs, could not be implemented in a generic fashion.
  • Testing ApplicationController methods is awkward.
  • Testing the current implementation of the method was repetitious.

While fixing a bug in this method, I decided to roll up my sleeves and use a few new objects to clean up this mess.

The Fix

The new method in ApplicationController now simply composes and delegates to a new object I created:

def requested_purchaseable
    finding(Section, :id, [:section_id]).
    finding(TeamPlan, :sku, [:team_plan_id]).
    finding(IndividualPlan, :sku, [:individual_plan_id]).
    finding(Product, :id, [:product_id, :screencast_id, :book_id, :show_id]).

The class composed and delegates to two small, private classes:

# Finds one of several possible polymorphic members from params based on a list
# of relations to look in and attributes to look for.
# Each polymorphic member will be tried in turn. If an ID is present that
# doesn't correspond to an existing row, or if none of the possible IDs are
# present in the params, an exception will be raised.
class PolymorphicFinder
  def initialize(finder)
    @finder = finder

  def self.finding(*args)

  def finding(relation, attribute, param_names)
    new_finder = param_names.inject(@finder) do |fallback, param_name|, attribute, param_name, fallback)

  def find(params)


  class Finder
    def initialize(relation, attribute, param_name, fallback)
      @relation = relation
      @attribute = attribute
      @param_name = param_name
      @fallback = fallback

    def find(params)
      if id = params[@param_name]
        @relation.where(@attribute => id).first!

  class NullFinder
    def find(params)
        "Can't find a polymorphic record without an ID: #{params.inspect}"

  private_constant :Finder, :NullFinder

The new class was much simpler to test.

It’s also easy to add new purchaseable types without introducing unnecessary complexity or risking regressions.

The explanation

The solution uses a number of constructs and design patterns, and may be a little tricky for those unfamiliar with them:

It works like this:

  • The PolymorphicFinder class acts as a Builder for the Finder interface. It accepts initialize arguments for Finder, and encapsulates the logic of chaining them together.
  • The finding instance method of PolymorphicFinder uses inject to recursively build a chain of Finder instances for each of the param_names that the Finder should look for.
  • Each Finder in the chain accepts a fallback. In the event that the Finder doesn’t know how to find anything from the given params, it delegates to its fallback. This forms a Chain of Responsibility.
  • The first Finder is initialized with a NullFinder, which forms the last resort of the Chain of Responsibility. In the event that every Finder instance delegates to its fallback, it will delegate to the NullFinder, which will raise a useful error of the correct Exception subclass.
  • The PolymorphicFinder class also acts as a Decorator for the Finder interface. Once the Builder interaction is complete, you can call find on the PolymorphicFinder (just as you would for a regular Finder) and it will delegate to the first Finder in its chain.


  • The new code replaces conditional logic and special cases with polymorphism, making it easier to change.
  • The usage (in ApplicationController) is much easier to read and modify.
  • Adding or changing finders is less likely to introduce regressions, since common issues like blank or unknown IDs are handled generically.
  • The code avoids possible state vs identity bugs by avoiding mutation.


  • The new code is larger, both in terms of lines of code and overall complexity by any measure.
  • It uses a large number of design patterns that will be confusing to those that are unfamiliar with them, or to those that fail to recognize them quickly.
  • It introduces new words into the application vocabulary. Although naming things can reveal their intent, too many names can cause vocabulary overload and make it difficult for readers to hold the problem in their head long enough to understand it.


In summary, using the new code is easier, but understanding the details may be harder. Although each piece is less complex, the big picture is more complex. This means that you can understand ApplicationController without knowing how it works, but knowing how the whole thing fits together will take longer.

The heavy use of design patterns will make the code very easy to read at a macro level when the patterns are recognized, but will read more like a recursive puzzle when the patterns aren’t clear.

Overall, the ease of use and the improve resilience to bugs made me decide to keep this refactoring despite its overall complexity.

Also available in 3D

Okay, maybe not 3D, but Ben and I also discussed this in a video on our show, the Weekly Iteration, available to Upcase subscribers.

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