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An Introduction to JavaScript Event Listeners for Web Designers

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Difficulty:BeginnerLength:MediumLanguages:

If you’re a web designer who’s yet to step into the world of JavaScript, or you’re just starting in front end development, this tutorial is the perfect way to begin. It will explain a couple of really useful concepts, very easily, which you’ll be able to use right away and will get you out of the JavaScript starting blocks.

What Are Event Listeners?

Event listeners are among the most frequently used JavaScript structures in web design. They allow us to add interactive functionality to HTML elements by “listening” to different events that take place on the page, such as when the user clicks a button, presses a key, or when an element loads.

When an event happens, we can execute something.

The most common events you might “listen out for” are loadclicktouchstartmouseover,  keydown. You can check out all the DOM events in MDN's Event Reference guide.

By following this guide you’ll learn how to create a JavaScript event listener in three different ways:

  • HTML’s global onevent attributes
  • jQuery’s event method
  • The DOM API’s addEventListener() method

Finally, we’ll have look at how to create a basic reveal-hide functionality using a click event listener.

1. How to Use Global Onevent Attributes in HTML

If you only want to add a one-liner script to a particular HTML element, you can use HTML's global onevent attributes defined by the HTML specification, such as onclick, onload, and onmouseover

These attributes can be directly added to any HTML element that’s present on the page, however, their browser support widely varies. For instance, onclick is supported by all modern browsers up from IE9, while support for other onevent attributes such as ondrag is more patchy. You can check out browser support for global onevent attributes by typing “globaleventhandlers” into the search box on CanIUse.

The syntax of onevent attributes is simple and, as they are global attributes, you can use them on any element, for instance:

Here, the onclick event listener listens to the click event on one specific button. When the event fires (the user clicks this button), the alert() callback function is executed. 

If we want to add the same alert functionality to each button on the page, we should add the click event listener in a separate script rather than using the onclick attribute.

2. How to Create an Event Listener in jQuery

jQuery has several event methods that listen to different kinds of events, such as .click(), .hover(), .mouseover(), .ready(), .load(), and others. For instance, this is how the above event listener will look in jQuery:

This event listener adds the 'Hi jQuery' alert message to all <button> elements on the page. To target just one specific button, we should add a unique id to it and target that id with the click() event method, for instance:

As jQuery's event methods target the same UI events as HTML’s global onevent attributes, there are many overlaps between the two. However, as jQuery is also a library that runs on the top of native JavaScript, it has some event methods, such as .hover(), that are not included in the DOM API, so we can’t listen to them with either onevent attributes or the native addEventListener() method.

The .on() Method

jQuery’s event listeners have another advantage over the two other techniques: the .on() method. It allows us to attach more than one event to the same callback function. For instance, we can add the same alert functionality to both the click and mouseover events at the same time:

3. How to Create an Event Listener in JavaScript

Using native JavaScript, we can listen to all the events defined in MDN’s Event Reference, including touch events. As this doesn’t require the use of a third-party library, it’s the most performance-friendly solution to add interactive functionality to HTML elements.

We can create an event listener in JavaScript using the addEventListener() method that’s built into every modern browser.

This is how our alert button example will look using plain JavaScript and the addEventListener() method:

Here it is in action:

In native JavaScript, we need to first select the DOM element that we want to add the event listener to. The querySelector() method selects the first element that matches a specified selector. So in our example, it selects the first <button> element on the page.

The custom alertButton() function is the callback function that will be called when the user clicks the button. 

Finally, we add the event listener. We always have to attach the addEventListener() method to a pre-selected DOM element using the dot notation. In the parameters, first we define the event we want to listen to ("click"), then the name of the callback function (alertButton), finally the value of the useCapture parameter (we use the default false value, as we don’t want to capture the event—here’s a simple explanation about how to use useCapture).

How to Add Functionality to All Buttons

So, the code above adds the alert function to the first button on the page. But, how would we add the same functionality to all buttons? To do so, we need to use the querySelectorAll() method, loop through the elements, and add an event listener to each button:

As querySelectorAll() returns a NodeList instead of a single element, we need to loop through the nodes to add a click event listener to each button. For instance, if we have three buttons on the page, the code above will create three click event listeners.

Note that you can only listen to one event with addEventListener(). So if you want the custom alertButton() function to fire on another event type such as mouseover, you’ll need to create a second event listener rule:

4. How to Combine Event Listeners with CSS and Conditionals

Probably the best thing about event listeners is that we can combine them with CSS and if-else conditional statements. In this way, we can target the different states of the same element with CSS and/or JavaScript.

For instance, here’s a very simple example; a reveal-hide functionality. The HTML only consists of a button and a section. We will bind the section to the button using a JavaScript event listener. The button will be responsible for revealing and hiding the section below it:

In the JavaScript, we first create two constants (revealButton and hiddenSection) for the two HTML elements using the querySelector() method.

Then, in the revealSection() callback function, we check if the hidden section has the reveal class or not using the classList property defined in the DOM API. If the hidden section has this class, we remove it using the DOM API’s remove() method, and if it doesn’t, we add it using the DOM API's add() method. Finally, we create an event listener for the click event.

Now, the JavaScript adds or removes the .reveal class depending on the current state of the hidden section. However, we still have to visually hide or reveal the element using CSS:

And, that’s all! When the user first clicks the button, the hidden section is revealed, and when they click it the second time, it gets hidden again. You can test the functionality in the Codepen demo below:

This basic reveal-hide functionality can be used for many different things, for instance, for toggling a menu on small screens, creating tabbed sections, displaying error messages, and more.

You Now Understand JavaScript Event Listeners!

In this guide, we looked at events that are initiated by users (click and mouseover), and how you can create event listeners for them.

Finding the right type of event requires solid testing, as there are events that are similar to each other but not quite the same, such as keydown and keypress. Plus, if there is more than one event listener on a page, they can interact with each other as well. 

Note that you should always test how your event listeners work on different devices (this is especially important for touch events). Finally, each event listener should be attached to the element where it makes the most sense, as ideally, there shouldn’t be any unnecessary event listeners in your code.

Go forth and build!

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