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TypeScript / Lookup Types

Posted On 02.25.2022

Let’s say you are tasked to build the next Amazon, and you gotta start small. So, you build a website that only sells books and audiobooks for now.

The system would have the BaseItem type, defining the essential properties of an item you are selling. For each of the product types, you use type intersection to construct a new type, along with its own properties:

type BaseItem = {
    name: string;
    price: number;
type Book = BaseItem & {
    productType: "book";
    pageCount: number;
type AudioBook = BaseItem & {
    productType: "audioBook";
    duration: number;
type Product = Book | AudioBook;

Next, you want to build a filter function that allows the users to filter the product based on its productType:

type ProductType = "book" | "audioBook";
function filterProduct(
    products: Product[],
    productType: ProductType
): Product[] {
    return products.filter(
        product => product.productType === productType

You can call the filterProduct function with any values of the ProductType:

filterProduct(products, "book") // OK
filterProduct(products, "audioBook") // OK

This function is type-safe because it would prevent you from making mistakes like passing incorrect product types:

filterProduct(products, "candy")
//                       ^^^^^
// Error: Argument of type 'candy' is not assignable
// to parameter of type "book" | "audioBook"

Things seem to look fine. The business went well. The management board gets over-excited and decides it’s time to expand the product categories.

So we add two new product types: Music and Video Games.

type Music = BaseItem & {
    productType: "music";
    songLength: number;
type VideoGame = BaseItem & {
    productType: "videoGame";
    digitalEdition: boolean;
type Product = Book | AudioBook | Music | VideoGame;

Now, you need to modify the ProductType type, so the filterProduct function could work with two new product types:

type ProductType = "book" | "audioBook" | "music" | "videoGame";
filterProduct(products, "book") // OK
filterProduct(products, "audioBook") // OK
filterProduct(products, "music") // OK
filterProduct(products, "videoGame") // OK

But wait! This approach doesn’t look good for a lot of reasons. First, the type definition of ProductType is redundant, we have to duplicate the productType from each product model. Second, do you want to keep extending both the Product and ProductType every time your company expands? I do not.

This is where lookup types (a.k.a indexed access types) become useful.

Instead of writing each element of the ProductType union, you can create a union type dynamically from the Product.productType field using index lookup, just like how you access the object’s property:

// don't do this
type ProductType = "book" | "audioBook" | "music" | "videoGame";
// do this
type ProductType = Product["productType"];
// ProductType = "book" | "audioBook" | "music" | "videoGame"

This feature of TypeScript is very useful as it help reduce redundant code, and also help you create more well-defined types by reusing existing types instead of manually write them out.