Jon Allured

Computer Programmer, Whiskey Drinker, Comic Book Reader

Playing Around With Content Editable in Rails

published 11/28/11

I recently tried working with the contenteditable attribute on an internal project at Hashrocket with my pair Dave Lyon and wanted to share what I thought about the experience. Our use case was simple:

In order to remember things about a Project As a Project Manager on the list of Projects page I want to make or edit a Note

Said another way, we've got a Project list page, each Project can have a Note and we want to be able to create a Note for a given project or edit an existing Note. For such a case you might make a bunch of <textarea> tags and then wrap them in forms or maybe bind to blur and either create or update a Note all AJAXey.

But this was an internal project and we wanted to try something different. We went through a couple different ideas, starting with something like this:

<p contenteditable="true" class="note">Note content here!</p>

We created an event handler to fire on blur and sent the content of the <p> tag to the server. But it wasn't long before we hit enter while editing that <p> tag and found that new <div> tags were being created. That didn't work like we wanted, so then we wrapped the <p> with a <section>, like so:

<section contenteditable="true" class="note">
  <p>Note content here!</p>

This way when you hit enter and create more <p> tags, they'd be contained inside the parent and we could send the content of <section> to the server. That was closer, but didn't feel quite right. Next we had the idea to just use a <ul>, like this:

<ul contenteditable="true" class="note">
  <li>Note content here!</li>

We liked this because then we'd just store the <li> tags in the database and it was nice and clean. I threw together a little demo page you can use to play around with our different approaches.

My take away here is that contenteditable is really only suitable for cases where you actually want HTML nodes to be created. Its perfect for something like a WYSIWYG editor or the Mercury Editor, things that aim to allow editing of a page right in the page. But for something like what we were doing, I think it was overkill.

Also, I'm not completely comfortable with its cross-browser support. I don't have access to IE anymore, but I was able to experiment with Chrome, Safari and FireFox. From what I could tell the two WebKit browsers were fairly consistent in how they implemented the details of this attribute, but FireFox does some different things. For instance, <br> tags seem to be added at the end of everything.

Still, contenteditable is a cool attribute and I was glad to learn a little more about it. Give that demo a whirl and consider it the next time you need something like this.