iPhone Life magazine

Unleash Your Inner App Developer Part 8: Code Writing First Steps

First Steps

Do you have an idea for an app but lack the programming knowledge to begin building it? In this weekly blog series, How To Unleash Your Inner App Developer, I will take you, the non-programmer, step by step through the process of creating apps for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. Join me each week on this adventure, and you will experience how fun turning your ideas into reality can be! This is Part 8 of the series. If you're just getting started now, check out the beginning of the series here (this post has been updated to iOS 7.1.)

In my previous post, I mentioned Objective-C, the language of iOS Apps, is an object-oriented programming language. This means when you write code, you are mostly interacting with objects—both visual and non-visual. Working with an object-oriented language is a great advantage for non-programmers who want to learn programming. In this post I'll talk about these advantages, and we'll even get you to write your first lines of code!

A Voyage of Discovery

One of the biggest advantages of object-oriented programming is discoverability—a measure of how easy it is to discover, or find the code you need to perform a particular task.

As mentioned in my previous post, Apple provides dozens of Cocoa Touch frameworks that provide a wide variety of services, which you can access from within your app. Within these frameworks are thousands of classes that provide the specific services you need. It's unreasonable to think you will study all of these classes before writing your first line of code. What you should do instead is learn about different classes as you have a need for them within your app.

So, when you need to perform a particular task, you need to discover which Cocoa Touch class will help you get the job done. For example, let's say you are creating an app that has one text field for the user's first name and a second text field for the user's last name as shown in Figure 1. When the user taps the Done button, you want to display a welcome message that combines the first and last names together (for example, "Welcome Steve Jobs." How do you do this?

First and Last name text fields
Figure 1 - First and last name text fields

It takes just a little bit of research to find out that the Cocoa Touch Framework has a class named NSString that allows you to perform a wide variety of tasks on a set of characters (known in programming jargon as a string). This class has two methods that allow you to combine two strings:

  • stringByAppendingFormat:
  • stringByAppendingString:

Once you learn about the existence of the NSString class, a whole world of string manipulation is opened up to you. NSString contains over 140 methods you can use to manipulate strings! The following table lists a few of the tasks you can perform using the NSString class. The column on the left lists the tasks you can perform and the column on the right lists the NSString methods you can use to perform each task.

Task Methods
Combine strings


Dividing strings


Finding characters
and substrings


Identifying and
comparing strings


Changing case


You don't need to know how all of these methods work right now. I just wanted to give you a sense of the kind of services available in the NSString class.

Object orientation is "the gift that keeps on giving." As you discover new classes, each one opens a world of functionality to you.

Understanding Inheritance

One of the foundational pillars of object-oriented programming is inheritance. The term refers to the concept that a class can be based on, or inherit attributes (properties) and behavior (methods) from another class.

For example, in the class diagram shown in Figure 2, the arrow pointing from the UITextField class up to the UIControl class indicates the UITextField class inherits from the UIControl class.

Figure 2 - UITextField inherits from UIControl.

Because of this relationship, the UITextField class inherits the UIControl class's enabled, highlighted, and selected properties as well as all of its methods. In this relationship, UIControl is known as the superclass of UITextField, and UITextField is known as the subclass of UIControl.

Class inheritance can go much further than just one level. For example, Figure 3 shows the UITextField's heritage traced all the way to the top level. UITextField inherits from UIControl, which inherits from UIView, and so on, all the way up to NSObject, which sits at the top of the inheritance chain. As you walk the inheritance chain the other way, from top to bottom, each class adds new properties and methods, which are inherited by the class below it.

UITextField full inheritance chain
Figure 3 - UITextField's full inheritance chain

In Objective-C, a class can only have one superclass, but it can have zero, one, or more subclasses. For example, UIControl has several subclasses, three of which are shown in Figure 4. This makes sense because UITextField, UIButton, and UISlider are all user-interface controls. Objective-C inheritance allows Apple to create the UIControl class, and put attributes and behavior into it that are common to all user-interface controls. New subclasses can be created that inherit these attributes and behavior from UIControl, and then new attributes and behavior can be added to the subclass that specialize the class to be a text field, button, slider, and so on. 

Classes can have zero-to-many subclasses
Figure 4 - Classes can have zero-to-many subclasses.

Inheritance and View Controllers

One of the places you will most often come across inheritance is with your project's view controllers. When you create a new iOS project, Xcode automatically adds view-controller subclasses to your project. For example, if you create a Master-Detail app Xcode adds MasterViewController and DetailViewController classes to your project as shown in Figure 5.

MasterViewController and DetailViewController classes
Figure 5 - MasterViewController and DetailViewController classes

As you can see in Figure 6, MasterViewController is a subclass of UITableViewController, which is in turn a subclass of UIViewController. The DetailViewController class is a direct subclass of UIViewController. This tells you that the MasterViewController class has been specialized to work with iOS table-view controls and the DetailViewController class has not.

View controller class hierarchy
Figure 6 - View-controller class hierarchy

As you build iOS apps, you will spend a lot of time modifying view-controller classes so it's important for you to understand how the properties and methods of the view-controller superclasses work. As you work with view controllers and other classes in practical situations, the concept of class inheritance will make even more sense.

Introducing the Queen Mother—NSObject

NSObject can be called the "Queen Mother" of all classes in the Cocoa Touch Framework because it defines the basic attributes and behavior for Objective-C objects. For the most part, all classes in the Cocoa Touch Framework, as well as the custom classes that you create, can trace their heritages back to the NSObject class. I say "for the most part," because you can define your own root class that isn't a subclass of NSObject—but you normally should not.

id—the Object Identifier

Since you can declare your own root classes, there has to be another way to refer to any type of object. That's where the id keyword comes in. In Objective-C, all objects are of type id. The id designation provides no information about an object except that it is an object. You will see the id keyword used most frequently when you begin creating code that responds to the user touching the user interface.

Configuring the Feedback Scene

I find there's nothing quite like performing a task yourself to help firm up a new concept, so let's do that now. To follow the steps outlined in this section, you need to download a new version of the iAppsReview project by clicking this link

  1. Open the new version of the iAppsReview project in Xcode;
  1. In the Project Navigator on the left side of the Xcode window, select the MainStoryboard.storyboard file. This displays the storyboard in the center of the Xcode window;
  1. Scroll to the bottom-right corner of the storyboard and you will see the scenes shown in Figure 7

The iAppsReview storyboard

Figure 7 - The update iAppsReview project contains a new Feedback scene.

Notice the new Feedback scene in the bottom-right corner of Figure 7. This new scene allows the user to enter their feedback about the iAppsReview app and click the Send Feedback button to post the feedback online. I find it's critical to have a place where users can provide feedback within your app. If you don't provide a place for them to give feedback here, they will post all complaints in the iTunes reviews section for your app, and give your app a low rating while they're at it! 

As it stands right now, there is no connection between the Settings scene and the Feedback scene. I left the segue out intentionally so you can experience how to create a modal segue. However, before doing this, I'd like you to notice there is a navigation bar at the top of the Feedback scene. Until now, all the scenes you have worked with haven't had a navigation bar until you created a segue to that scene, and then one was added automatically. However, when you create a modal segue, a navigation bar is not automatically added for you. You have to manually drag a Navigation Bar from the Object Library and place it at the top of the scene. You also need to manually add any buttons you want to the navigation bar. In this case, I dragged a Bar Button Item from the Object Library and placed it on the left side of the navigation bar;

  1. Now you're ready to create the segue. To do this, go to the Settings scene, hold the Control key down, click on the Provide Feedback button and drag over to the Feedback scene. When the Feedback scene is highlighted in blue, let go of the mouse button to display the segue popup. Select the modal option from the popup as shown in Figure 8. This creates a new segue between the two scenes;
Select modal from the segue popup
Figure 8 - Select modal from the segue popup.
  1. Now let's configure the segue. To do this, first select the new segue in the design surface, which displays a blue highlight on the Provide Feedback button (Figure 9) because it is the user-interface control that triggers the segue. Next, go to the Attributes Inspector and change the Transition to Cover Vertical as shown in Figure 9. This option causes the Feedback view to rise up from the bottom of the screen when the user taps the Send Feedback button at run time;
Change the modal segue's Transition attribute to Cover Vertical
Figure 9 - Change the segue's Transition attribute to Cover Vertical.
  1. OK, let's give it a try. Press Xcode's Run button, and when the app appears in the Simulator, select Settings & Feedback, and then click the Provide Feedback button. You will see the Feedback view pop up from the bottom of the screen;
  1. Now click the Cancel button. You may have expected the Feedback view to slide down and disappear into the bottom of the screen, but notice nothing happens when you click the button. We don't get this default behavior because we had to manually create the navigation bar and Cancel button. In order to close the Feedback view, we need to write some code, which we will do in just a bit;
  1. Go back to Xcode and click the Stop button to stop the app from running in the Simulator.

Three Steps to Custom Code

Whenever you need to perform a custom action associated with a particular scene (such as dismiss the Feedback view), you need to write some code. Where do you put this code? In a custom view controller you create specifically for that scene. There are three key steps involved in this process:

  1. Add a new view-controller class to the project;
  1. Associate the new view-controller class with the storyboard scene;
  1. Add custom code to the new view-controller class;

We will perform each of these steps in the next sections.

Adding a New View-Controller Class to the Project

Follow the steps below to add a new view-controller class to the iAppsReview project. 

  1. Select File > New > File... from the Xcode menu. This displays the New File dialog shown in Figure 10;
New File Dialog
Figure 10 - Select Cocoa Touch and Objective-C class in the New File dialog.
  1. On the left side of the dialog, under the iOS section, select Cocoa Touch. In the panel on the right, select Objective-C class and then click Next. This displays the second step of the New File dialog as shown in Figure 11;
Create a new FeedbackViewController class.
Figure 11 - Create a FeedbackViewController class, based on UIViewController.
  1. In the Subclass of box, enter UIViewController. This indicates the new class you are creating is based on, or inherits from the UIViewController class. I like to specify this selection first because it prefills the Class box with the text ViewController;
  1. Next, in the Class text field, add the prefix Feedback in front of the ViewController class to name the class FeedbackViewController. I like to name the view controllers based on the scene with which they will be associated. Since this view controller will be associated with the Feedback scene, FeedbackViewController is a great name;
  1. Click the Next button. This displays the Save File dialog as shown in Figure 12;
Save File dialog
Figure 12 - The Save File dialog
  1. Click the Create button to create the new view-controller class and save it in the project's root folder. After a few seconds, you will see two new files in the Project Navigator as shown in Figure 13.
New view controller files
Figure 13 - The new view-controller files in the Project Navigator

Notice that two FeedbackViewController files have been added to the project—one with a .h extension and one with a .m extension. All classes in Objective-C are comprised of two files. The first file, FeedbackController.h, is a public class header file (also known simply as header file). The header file declares the class's public interface to other classes. It's called a public interface because it describes the properties and methods that can be accessed by other classes. 

FeedbackController.m is a class implementation file (also known simply as implementation file). It implements, or contains the actual code for, the properties and methods declared in the public interface;

  1. Select the FeedbackViewController.h file in the Project Navigator. The code within is shown in Figure 14.
Header file code
Figure 14 - The code contained within the FeedbackViewController.h file

Here are some important points to note:

  • The text in green at the top of the file are comments. In Objective-C, comments are used for documentation purposes. Comments are not code and are therefore not executed by an iOS app;
  • Directly below the comments, at the top of the file, is a #import statement which we will discuss in a future post;
  • The actual class interface definition begins with the @interface directive and ends with the @end directive;
  • The header file declares the class name, in this case, FeedbackViewController;
  • The header file declares the class heritage. In this case, UIViewController is the superclass of FeedbackViewController;
  • In the header file, you declare public properties and methods. "Public" means that someone can create an object from your class, call these methods, and access these properties.
  1. Select the FeedbackViewController.m class implementation file in the Project Navigator to see its contents. The code within is shown in Figure 15 (I've left out the comments at the top of the file this time).
Implementation file code
Figure 15 - The code contained within the FeedbackViewController.m file

Here are some important points to note about this code:

  • The actual class implementation begins with the @implementation directive and ends with the @end directive;
  • The implementation file is used to add the actual code to public methods as well as to declare private methods;
  • There are three methods in this file:
  1. initWithNibName:bundle:
  1. viewDidLoad
  1. didReceiveMemoryWarning
  • It's common for a new code file to have methods like this contained within it when you first create a class. These methods are placed here for your convenience because they are common places where you can add custom code;
  • The left curly brace ( { ) marks the beginning of the method's code. The right curly brace ( } ) marks the end of a method's code. When you add code to a method, you must always make sure the code you add is between these two curly braces!

You will learn much more about method declarations in a future post. I just wanted to hit the highlights for now.

Associating the FeedbackViewController With the Feedback Scene

Now that you have created the new FeedbackViewController class, it's time to associate it with the Feedback scene.

  1. In the Project Navigator, select the MainStoryboard.storyboard file;
  1. Click on the status bar at the top of the Feedback scene. When the blue line appears around the scene (Figure 16), it indicates that you have selected the scene's table view controller;
The view controller's class
Figure 16 - Viewing the Class of a view controller
  1. Go to Xcode's Identity Inspector by clicking the third button from the left in the Inspector toolbar as shown in Figure 16. Notice that, by default, the Class of the view controller is set to UIViewController. This means that at run time, when the Feedback view is loaded, a view controller object is created from the UIViewController class to manage the Feedback view. This works great for a prototype app, but now that we want to write some custom code associated with this scene, we need to change the Class to our custom view controller;
  1. In the Identity Inspector's Class combo box, enter FeedbackViewController. As soon as you start typing the first few letters, Xcode should automatically fill in the class name FeedbackViewController. However, due to a bug in Xcode, this doesn't always happen. If the class name doesn't auto-fill, make sure you enter FeedBackViewController with the exact upper/lower case letters shown here.

Adding an Action Method to the FeedbackViewController Class

Now that you have associated the FeedbackViewController class with the Feedback scene, you're ready to write some custom code. This is where Xcode comes to the rescue. Xcode can actually write some of the code for you, as you will see in this section!

  1. With the Feedback scene's still selected go to the top right of the Xcode window and click the center button in the Editor button set (Figure 17).
Select the Assistant Editor button
Figure 17 - Select the Assistant Editor button.

Doing this displays the FeedbackViewController.m code file in the Assistant Editor as shown in Figure 18. The Assistant Editor's job is to display files associated with the file you currently have open in the standard editor. Because you associated the FeedbackViewController class with the Feedback scene in the previous section of this post, when you click the Assistant Editor button, it automatically opens the FeedbackViewController implementation (.m) file;

The assistant editor
Figure 18 - The FeedbackViewController.h file is displayed in the Assistant Editor.

Note: If the FeedbackViewController.m file does not automatically appear in the Assistant Editor, check the toolbar at the top of the Assistant Editor. If it says Manual as shown in Figure 19, click the section of the toolbar that says Manual, and then select Automatic > FeedbackViewController.m from the popup menu.

Select Automatic
Figure 19 - Select Automatic > FeedbackViewController.h.
  1. Click on the Cancel button in the navigation bar at the top of the Feedback scene to select it;
  1. Next, go to the Connections Inspector by clicking the button on the far right of the Inspector toolbar (Figure 20). The Connections Inspector allows you to connect user-interface controls with method code in a scene's associated view controller;
  1. Now we're going to have Xcode help us create an action method. An action method is a method that is executed at run time in response to a user's action, such as tapping a button. In the Connections Inspector under the Sent Actions section, click on the empty circle to the right of the selector action (known as a connection well) and drag down into the FeedbackViewController.h file just above the @end declaration until you see the Insert Action popup shown in Figure 20. The blue line that appears between the connection well and the code file reinforces the concept that you are creating a connection between the Cancel button and the FeedbackViewController header file;
Create an action method
Figure 20 - Create an action method.
  1. When you see the Insert Action popup, let go of the mouse button to display the Connection popup shown in Figure 21. This popup allows you to specify the name of the action method to be created;
The Connection popup
Figure 21 - The Connection popup
  1. In the Connection popup's Name box, enter cancel as the name of the method to be created (Figure 21) and then click the Connect button. This creates a new method declaration in the FeedbackViewController.h file as shown in Figure 22. Again, we'll cover more in depth information on method declarations later in this series, but for now, you just need to know that Xcode has automatically declared a new method named cancel: in the FeedbackViewController header file. The IBAction keyword indicates that this is an Interface Builder action method;
The new cancel method
Figure 22 - The new cancel: method declaration
  1. Notice the connection well to the left of the new cancel method. The circle has a dark grey center, indicating the method is connected to a user interface control. To see which use interface control a method is connected to, you can simply hover your mouse pointer over the connection well, and the associated user interface control is highlighted in the design surface as shown in Figure 23.
Hover over the connection well
Figure 23 - Hover over an action method's connection well to see the user-interface control it's connected to.

You an also view the connection to the cancel: method in the Connection Inspector. As shown in Figure 24, you can see that the Cancel button (the object that is currently selected in the design surface) is connected to the cancel: method in the Feedback View Controller;

Connection Inspector
Figure 24 - The Connections Inspector shows the Cancel button's connection to the cancel method.
  1. You are finished with the Assistant Editor, so you can hide it by clicking the Standard Editor button on the left side of the Editor button group as shown in Figure 25;
Select the standard editor button
Figure 25 - Select the Standard Editor button.
  1. Now go back to the Project Navigator, select the FeedbackViewController.m file, scroll to the bottom of the code file and you will see that an empty cancel: method has been added as shown in Figure 26
Cancel method implementation
Figure 26 - The cancel: method in the FeedbackViewController.m file

This method implementation was created at the same time as the cancel: method declaration when you clicked Connect in the Connection popup (Figure 21). Although Xcode did all the work for you, this is how you declare a method in Objective-C. You declare the method in one of two places:

  1. In the @interface section of your implementation (.m) file (Figure 22) if you only want the method to to be accessible within the class in which you declare it (this is usually the case for action methods)
  2. In the class header (.h) file if you want it publicly accessible to other classes in your project 

After declaring the method you implement the method in the class implementation (.m) file.

Let's Write Some Code!

As it stands right now, there is no code in the method (between the curly braces), so if you were to run the app in the Simulator, clicking the Cancel button still wouldn't do anything. Fortunately, all you need to do is add one line of code to this method to hide the Feedback view.

  1. To do this, click to the right of the left curly brace on the first line of the method, and then press the return key twice. This creates an empty line where you can begin typing the code. I'm going to take you step-by-step through the mechanics of entering this code and then we'll talk about what the code does;
  1.  Type a left square bracket, and then type the letters se as shown in Figure 27. As soon as you do this, Xcode displays a Code Completion popup that helps you write code. Based on the characters you type, it provides its best guess as to what you need to complete a code statement. As it turns out, Xcode guessed correctly—you were typing the word self. In this context, self refers to the class in which you are typing the code—in this case, the FeedbackViewController class. As you will learn in just a bit, our ultimate goal with this code is to pass a message to the FeedbackViewController, telling it to dismiss itself. A message is an instruction you pass to an object, telling it to execute a particular method. In Objective-C you place code that passes a message within square brackets. That's why you started off typing a left square bracket;
Typing self
Figure 27 - Xcode's Code Completion helps you write code.
  1. Press return to have Xcode automatically enter the full text of the word for you. If the Code Completion popup goes away, then just press the escape key to bring it back. When you press return, Xcode adds the letters lf to complete the word self;
self Code Completion
Figure 28 - Code Completion completes the keyword self.
  1. Next, hit the space bar and then type the letters dis. When you do this, the Code Completion popup appears as shown in Figure 29.
dismiss Code Completion
Figure 29 - Code Completion appears for the "dis" characters you typed.

The last method that is highlighted in the list in Figure 29, dismissViewControllerAnimated:completion, sounds exactly like the method that we want the FeedbackViewController to execute. At the top of the Code Completion popup, there is a short description of the currently selected method, and there is even a More... link you can click to find out more about the method. If this method is not currently selected, you can use your up and down arrow keys to select the method manually;

  1. Press the return key to select the method. When you do this, Code Completion adds the code template shown in Figure 30.
Figure 30 - The dismissViewControllerAnimated:completion: method template

Notice the sections of code highlighted in gray—(BOOL) and ^(void)completion. These are placeholders in which you need to enter Objective-C code. When you pass a message to an object, you often pass additional information known as arguments to further specify the behavior you want from the method being called. These placeholders are where you enter the additional arguments.

Currently, focus is set to the (BOOL) placeholder. When you see this type of placeholder, you can type either YES or NO. In this case, you are specifying whether you want the FeedbackViewController dismissed with an animation (so it slides back down through the bottom of the screen), or whether you want it to simply disappear from view. We want to include the sliding animation, so type the word YES for the argument value as shown in Figure 31;

Type YES
Figure 31 - Type YES in the (BOOL) placeholder.
  1. Next, press the tab key to move to the ^(void)completion placeholder. This placeholder provides an opportunity for you to pass code that you want to be executed after the view controller has been dismissed. In this case, we don't need to do anything afterwards, so just type the keyword nil as shown in Figure 32, which indicates you don't want to do anything afterwards;
Type nil
Figure 32 - Type nil in the ^(void)completion placeholder.
  1. There is only one other thing to do to finish this line of code, and that is add a semicolon to the end of it. As is true with other C-based languages such as Java and C#, each line of code in Objective-C must end with a semicolon. The easiest way to do this is press the right-arrow key (located in the bottom-right corner of your keyboard) which takes you past the closing right-square bracket, and then type a semicolon. Your completed line of code should look like Figure 33.
Add a semicolon
Figure 33 - Add a semicolon at the end of the line.

To review, this code passes a message to the FeedbackViewController (self) telling it to run the dismissViewControllerAnimated:completion: method. A YES argument is passed indicating the view controller should be animated as it is dismissed, and a nil is passed as the completion argument, indicating no further action is necessary after the view controller is dismissed.

Watching the Magic Happen

Now you're ready to see your first line of code in action as outlined in the following steps.

  1. Click Xcode's Run button; 
  1. Click the Settings & Feedback row, and when the Settings view appears, click the Provide Feedback button, which displays the Feedback view;
  1. Click the Cancel button, and the Feedback view should slide down through the bottom of the screen.

Congratulations! You have successfully written and executed your first Objective-C code!


If all of this seems like a lot to take in, I recommend re-reading this post until the concepts of inheritance, messages, arguments, and methods become clearer for you. You can download the completed (so far) version of iAppsReview at this link.

In my next post we will dive even further into these different concepts as we continue to write code that turns our iAppsReview prototype app into a real-world app.

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Kevin McNeish's picture
Kevin McNeish is author of the new book “Learn to Code in Swift” as well as the “iOS App Development for Non-Programmers” book series (www.iOSAppsForNonProgrammers.com), winner of the Publishing Innovation Award. Kevin is also an award-winning app developer, software architect, and conference speaker in the U.S. and abroad. He has spent much of his career making difficult concepts easy to understand. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @kjmcneish.