What is React?

Kent C. Dodds
Kent C. Dodds

React is a JavaScript library for creating user interfaces and managing user interactions. React is used primarily for building web applications in browsers, but the component model is so powerful that it can be used to create native mobile and desktop applications, images, PDFs, terminal applications, and much more.

As a result of React’s success with the component-based model of interface composition, many other UI libraries and frameworks have adopted this approach with their own flare. However, React has been (by a large margin) the dominant way to build user interfaces for many years now and will likely remain that way as long as you or I continue to develop software on the web.

Let’s go a little deeper and look at the pieces that make up React.

React’s core building block

The foundational component of user interfaces built with React are elements:

import { createElement } from 'react'
const element = createElement('button', { onClick: () => console.log('clicked!') }, 'Click me!')

If we inspect the element that React’s created, it looks like this:

"$$typeof": Symbol(react.element),
"type": "button",
"key": null,
"ref": null,
"props": {
"onClick": () => console.log('clicked!'),
"children": "Click me!"
"_owner": null,
"_store": {}

This object (which I call a “UI descriptor”) is used to generated UI that’s native to the environment it’s rendered in. In our case we want to generate UI for the browser, so we use the React DOM package to convert this UI into DOM nodes that the browser can understand.

This separation between React elements and DOM elements is part of what makes your React knowledge (or even code) portable to environments other than the browser.


Using the createElement API directly is not very ergonomic, so when React was initially announced it came with a special lightweight syntax addition to JavaScript to make it easier to create elements. With that syntax, you can create that same button like this

const element = <button onClick={() => console.log('clicked!')}>Click me!</button>

Because this is a syntax addition that browsers don’t natively run, you need to compile your code before the browser can interpret it. You can technically do this right in the browser (I built an app I used daily for years that did things this way actually), but it’s not optimal.

In most apps, you’ll be using a tool to convert your JavaScript anyway. You’ll at least want a minifier to reduce the amount of text you send over the network and likely a bundler to reduce the number of files the browser has to load. On top of this, especially in anything serious, you’ll want to use TypeScript which supports JSX natively.

Writing UI in this way is delightful. It takes most developers just a few hours of study and practice to understand how JSX translates to regular JavaScript, then you can be highly effective working in the syntax because it’s basically just JavaScript anyway.

Reusable elements: Components

As React is written in JavaScript, you can of course create parameterized functions which return React elements. React has formalized this in something called a component and it’s how you can create custom React elements. To top it off, you can parameterize these components using something called “props” which is an object received by your component:

function ClickMeButton(props) {
return <button onClick={props.onClick}>Click me!</button>

You can then create that element like other elements:

const element = <ClickMeButton onClick={() => console.log('clicked!')} />

Here’s what that element object looks like:

"$$typeof": Symbol(react.element),
"type": ClickMeButton,
"key": null,
"ref": null,
"props": {
"onClick": () => console.log('clicked!')
"_owner": null,
"_store": {}

When React is ready to render this UI, it will call your function with the props to retrieve the other elements it needs to render.

This API enables React components to compose together in beautifully powerful ways that a decade later we’re still benefitting from. It enables us to build highly reusable abstractions. For example, you could package up all the accessibility requirements for a tabs UI in a couple components that work together and offer something like this:

<Tabs defaultValue="account">
<TabsTrigger value="account">Account</TabsTrigger>
<TabsTrigger value="password">Password</TabsTrigger>
<TabsContent value="account">Make changes to your account here.</TabsContent>
<TabsContent value="password">Change your password here.</TabsContent>

Composition is the name of the game when it comes to React, even between server-only code which generates the UI and client-side code which makes the UI interactive. Speaking of making the UI interactive…

Updating UIs with React

React not only helps you generate the initial UI, but also manage changes to that UI over time. Whether you’re building an interactive experience for users, or a dashboard that updates in the background, React will help you keep your UI up-to-date.

Data is used to generate the UI. When that data can change over time, we call it state. In React, you can manage this state a number of ways, but the primary mechanism is via a function called useState . This function can only be used within custom components so React knows what UI to update when the state changes:

function Counter() {
const [count, setCount] = useState(0)
const increment = () => setCount((c) => c + 1)
return <button onClick={increment}>Current Count: {count}</button>

Whenever the user clicks the button, setCount is called which notifies React that the state value needs to be changed and React needs to retrieve the new elements based on that new value.

As mentioned, there are several ways to manage state built-into React, but the basic idea is always the same: an update happens, React calls the component again with the updated value, React compares what you return this time with what was returned last time and updates the DOM accordingly. In our case the textContent of the button will be updated each time the button is clicked.

So, what is React?

Like I said at the start, React is a JavaScript library for creating user interfaces and managing user interactions. There are of course more things to talk about when it comes to building web applications with the most widely used tool in the business with the biggest ecosystem, but this is as far as we’ll take it today.

I’m going to be publishing a lot of articles diving deeper in these aspects and others (so sign up to be notified when they become available!).

React has evolved over the last more than decade since its original release, but the core concept of composability has remained and been pushed further and further over the years. I’ve never been more excited about building applications with React and it just keeps getting better. Thanks for joining me for the ride!

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