The problem

Recently I’ve seen in a project I work on a lot of occurrences of this code:

if user.privacy && user.privacy.enables_page?(...)

The first part of the condition above is a bad practice in object oriented design. It forces collaborators of user to know a part of its implementation - it could have a privacy or it couldn’t.

What we want

Wouldn’t it be much better to just write this:

if user.privacy.enables_page?(...)

Hiding the responsibility inside the user class? It would be much cleaner and follow the Tell, don’t ask principle.

How to get there

There are many ways to achieve this behaviour, but most of them will be based on The null object pattern. We want user.privacy to return an object which responds falsey to all the method of the original Privacy class.

First solution

A trivial implementation could look like this:

# null_privacy.rb

class NullPrivacy

  def enables_page? any_page


But how we are going to tie this class to our User class? Strategies may change depending on your persistence layer. A one-fits-all solution is this: build an abstraction layer around your user.privacy relation.

# user.rb

  has_one :_privacy

  def privacy
    _privacy ||

  def privacy= privacy
    self._privacy = privacy

What we’re doing here is renaming the original privacy field to _privacy, so that we won’t call it directly, and we’re building two accessor methods to use User#privacy and User#privacy= as usual.

Another solution

If you want to keep things even simpler, you can model your Privacy class so that a new instance of this class behaves exactly like a NullPrivacy, and thus avoid the need of a NullPrivacy. Just keep in mind that things could change in your code in the future, so nail this down with a test before proceeding to avoid nasty surprises in the future.

… and Mongoid

Finally, if you are using Mongoid and you can model your Privacy class as described above, there’s a one-line solution:

  # user.rb

  has_one :privacy, autobuild: true

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23 December 2013