Jan 15, 2024

Communicating with React Native Web Views

by Trey Cucco

At Close, the frontend team has been lucky in that, for 10 years we've been maintaining a single web application and codebase. We do have an electron-based desktop application, but that primarily uses our web app code, with a very small amount of electron-specific changes.

But then we released our mobile app. We decided to build our app with React Native1, and to reuse our web app as much as possible via WebViews. However, we also wanted to apply native mobile patterns and capabilities where it made sense, things like: navigation, calling, and push notifications.

With that came new challenges around communicating and coordinating between web app code and React Native code.

In this post I'm going to talk through the communication primitives provided by React Native WebView (the webview library we picked), some of the potential developer footguns we noticed, and the patterns we developed to make sure our native app and web app could evolve independently without breaking.

Communication Patterns

As outlined in their docs, React Native WebView provides several ways of communicating between native and web. web. If you want a full description, the project provides a dedicated section of the docs for that. We're going to focus on two of the options: injectJavaScript to communicate to web from native, and the postMessage / onMessage pair, which allows communication to Native from Web.

Receiving Communications in Native

To send information from the web app to the native app, you first attach a handler to the onMessage prop of the WebView. This handler receives an event with a string data prop. The WebView fires this event whenever the web app calls a global function provided by the WebView: window.ReactNativeWebView.postMessage.

So in React Native you'd create a WebView component like this:

  onMessage={(event) => {

And in your web app JavaScript you can do something like this:

const sendMessageToNative = (message: string) => {

sendMessageToNative("Hello, React Native!");

Then, back in React Native, you'd see "Hello, React Native!" logged out whenever the web app was run.

Receiving Communications in Web

Things are not as straightforward when communicating to the web app from the native app. Rather than exposing an event-based system, React Native WebView allows you to inject arbitrary JavaScript code into the WebView at any time. This means that you can do almost anything at any time.

Like this:

const webViewRef = useRef<WebView>();

const sayHiFromReactNative = (code: string) => {
  webViewRef.current.injectJavaScript('window.alert("Hello, from React Native!");');

// ... other code

return (
    <TouchableOpacity onPress={sayHiFromReactNative}>
      <Text>Say Hi</Text>

If that sounds scary or overwhelming to you, you're not alone. We immediately recognized several big problems:

  • If the native app is directly running code in the web app, we have to make sure we don't change things that the native app depends on.
  • If we do have a hard dependency between the native app and the web app, how will we coordinate deployments between the two?
  • What do we do about users not upgrading their mobile app and the old mobile app loading up the new web app?
  • The injected JavaScript is just a string, so we don't get any nice developer tools like code highlighting, linting, type safety, etc.
  • What if we want to do something that isn't exposed in the global scope? Do we have to have some way of registering things globally so we can work with it from native?

The Message Bridge

These, and many other questions, led us to build a "message bridge" between the the native app and the web app. We decided that:

  • All communications between the two must happen by message passing.
  • All messages must conform to a standard shape.
  • Messages must be strongly typed.

The pattern provided to receive data in React Native was a good start: the web app sends strings to the native app which triggers an event handler. However, we wanted to have predictably structured data rather than just "any string".

So we decided that all messages would be objects with a certain shape, and we would JSON.stringify the object before posting on the bridge. We settled on:

type Message = { action: string; payload: any };

const sendMessageToRN = (message: Message) => {

Then, on the native side, we'd deserialize the method before handling it:

const handleMessage = useCallback((event: WebViewMessageEvent) => {
  const { action, payload } = JSON.parse(event.data);
  // take appropriate action
}, []);

This made receiving data from the web app very structured. Now, we wanted to do the same thing on the web app side.

While our final solution ended up being a bit more involved than what I'll show here (for instance, there's a lot of data checking, error handling, and helpers for debugging), this is the outline of what we came up with:

import EventEmitter from 'events';
import { useEffect } from 'react';

const RNEvents = new EventEmitter();

export const registerRNHandler = (
  action: string,
  callback: (payload: any) => void,
) => {
  RNEvents.on(action, callback);
  return () => RNEvents.off(action, callback);

export const useRNHandler = (
  action: string,
  callback: (payload: any) => void,
) => {
  useEffect(() => {
    const deregister = registerRNHandler(action, callback);
    return () => deregister();
  }, [action, callback]);

const onMessageFromRN = (message: string) => {
  const { action, payload } = JSON.parse(message);
  RNEvents.emit(action, payload);

// Attach the handler to `window` so we can access it from
// scripts injected by React Native WebView.
window.onMessageFromRN = onMessageFromRN;

With this, we can allow individual React components to register and respond to messages from React Native when they are mounted, or attach global handlers via registerRNHandler.

Next, on the React Native side, we added a method to wrap injectJavaScript that will take the action and payload, put them in the correct format, and serialize it all into valid JavaScript code to be injected:

const buildMessageJavaScript = (action: string, payload: any) => {
  const message = JSON.stringify({ action, payload });
  // Stringify the message a second time to escape quotes etc.
  const safeString = JSON.stringify(message);

  return `window.onMessageFromRN(${safeString});`;

const postMessageToWebApp = (
  webViewRef: MutableRefObject<WebView>,
  action: string,
  payload: any,
) => {
    buildMessageJavaScript(action, payload),

With that in place, we now had the basis for a two-way message bridge to send structured messages between the native app and the web app.

Strongly Typed Messages

After a few weeks of developing with this messaging system, the lack of type safety on our messages became a real pain: it was easy to misspell an action name, or to give the wrong data in the payload. So we decided to strongly type our messages and make sure that on both sides, whenever we send a message, the action string belonged to the pre-identified set of actions, and the payload attached to it conformed to the expected shape for that action.

Again, I won't go into all the details on what that looks like, but we ended up with a types file that looks like this:

// Defines the actions and payloads that the web app can send to the native app
export type FromWebActions = {
  callInitiated: {
    leadId: string;
    contactId: string;
    phoneNumber: string;
  organizationChanged: {
    organizationId: string;
  appReady: {
    organizationId: string;
  // many more actions

export type FromWebActionName = keyof FromWebActions;

// Defines the actions and payloads that the native app can send to the web app
export type FromNativeActions = {
  profilePopoverToggled: null;
  routeChanged: {
    pathname: string;
    options: { replace?: boolean; };
  searchHidden: null;
  // many more actions

export type FromNativeActionName = keyof FromNativeActions;

And we updated our message handling methods like this:

export const postMessageToRN = <T extends FromWebActionName>(
  action: T,
  payload: FromWebActions[T],
) => {
  // same implementation as above

export const registerRNHandler = <T extends FromNativeActionName>(
  action: T,
  callback: (payload: FromNativeActions[T]) => void,
) => {
  // same implementation as above

With that (and something similar on the native side) we now had type-safe message passing between the two systems! If we try to give an action name that wasn't recognized, or if we gave a payload with the wrong shape or data, TypeScript warns us.

This greatly improved the DX of sending messages between the two systems, and caught silly bugs quickly.

Sharing the type definitions

We set up the type definitions so they could be used as-is between the two systems, but we still needed to figure out how to share those type definitions. Ultimately, we decided to just manually synchronize the file between the two codebases.

Since making changes to it on one side almost always involves making changes on the other side (e.g. adding new handlers, or adding new message posters) this is adequate for now.

Limiting Knowledge Between Systems

We want to keep the two systems as decoupled as possible. Being able to independently deploy the web app and native app was a hard requirement for us.

The advantage of a message-based communication API is that the web app doesn't have to care how the native app will do something (like initiate a phone call) it just has to tell it "the user pressed a button to start a call" and the native app will receive that message and Do The Right Thing.

This even means that the implementation can change on one side and the other app doesn't have to be updated or re-deployed.

Coordinating Behavior Between Releases

However, there's still one more problem we ran in to that wasn't solved by the message passing system alone: when we add new features to the native app, and it expects new messages from the web app, how do we coordinate that? Take calling as an example.

When we implemented native calling, we needed the web app to send a message to the native app saying "the user wants to initiate a call with this information". Before this, however, the web app would simply pop up a modal saying "calling is not supported on this device".

We couldn't just update the web app to always send the message, because we couldn't be sure that the user had a version of the native app that was ready to receive and respond to the "start a call" message. So our web app needed to know which action to take, depending on which version of the native app it was loaded in: send the message or show a modal?

We decided to use a feature flagging system where the native app could let the web app know what to do. We again use React Native WebView's JavaScript injection capabilities, but this time we use it to set global variables that the web app can check.

It looks something like this:

const preScript = `
window.ReactNativeWebView.IS_CALLING_ENABLED = ${featureEnabled('calling')};
window.ReactNativeWebView.IS_SEARCH_ENABLED = ${featureEnabled('search')};
// ... etc

return (

This then sets global variables that our web app can check whenever certain actions come up, so it might:

const makeCall = (
  leadId: string,
  contactId: string,
  phoneNumber: string
) => {
  if (window.ReactNativeWebView?.IS_CALLING_ENABLED) {
  } else {
    // Show calling not available modal

We then deploy our updated web app with the flag check, and then only native apps that are ready to handle calls will receive the callInitiated method.

Closing Thoughts

Having a loosely coupled, strongly typed message passing system between our native app and web app took some consideration and work, but in the end it has turned out to be a robust and pleasant way to implement new features and evolve our native app and web app without bringing any of our systems down.

If you're using a web view to in your native app, consider setting up something similar. While some things are harder to do with message passing instead of direct manipulation, the developer experience gains are well worth the trouble in those edge cases.

  1. If you'd like to read more about how we made that decision, check out our blog post on Picking a Mobile App Platform.