Swift Protocols Aren’t Scary

For people new to Swift, or coding in general, there are some keywords that might seem daunting. Optionals. Generics. Sometimes you can explain these in a simple way. Other times, exposure to them might scare learners.

Protocols might seem like a big concept for some. If you look at how many protocols exist in various frameworks, you might think, “Wow, that’s a lot to learn! When will I use all of these?”

For instance, the Int type conforms to 11 different protocols. Do you need to know them all?

What is a protocol?

A protocol is essentially a blueprint. It defines functionality. This can be requiring the existing of certain properties or functions. Something that conforms to a protocol is required to provide the required elements.

For instance, I could declare a protocol that requires the conforming object, whether a class, struct, or enum, to have a name property.

protocol Nameable {
    var name: String { get set }
}Code language: JavaScript (javascript)

If I have a struct representing, say, an instrument, I can have it conform to that protocol, which will require the presence of a name property.

struct Guitar: Nameable {
    var type: String
    var name: String // Required because of protocol
}Code language: JavaScript (javascript)

Protocol conformance can be declared when you create your type, or it can be done in an extension. However, extensions cannot contain stored properties, so you can only add support for required functions in extensions.

protocol DataSource {
    func numberOfItems(in section: Int) -> Int
    func dataToShow(at indexPath: IndexPath) -> Data

class DataManager {
    // Your class stuff here

extension DataManager: DataSource {
    func numberOfItems(in section: Int) -> Int {
        // Return the number of items in each section
    func dataToShow(at indexPath: IndexPath) -> Data {
        // Return some data to show for each row/section
}Code language: PHP (php)

When would I use one?

You would use a protocol when you want to require functionality for a type. When would you use this?

With the exception of very basic iOS applications, you are likely to come across a protocol and not even realize it. Consider the following example:

class MyTableViewController: UIViewController {
    var tableView: UITableView!
    override func viewDidLoad() {
        tableView.dataSource = self
        tableView.delegate = self

Here, we have a view controller that we’ve created. It has a table view in it. To have a working table view, we need to have a data source and delegate. In simple examples, you would see what we have here: the class itself conforms as a datasource and delegate.

To do that, we’d have to have our class conform to 2 different protocols. One tells the requirements for the data source, the other tells the requirements to be a delegate.

extension MyTableViewController: UITableViewDataSource {
    func tableView(_ tableView: UITableView, numberOfRowsInSection section: Int) -> Int {
        // Return number of rows in each section
    func tableView(_ tableView: UITableView, cellForRowAt indexPath: IndexPath) -> UITableViewCell {
        // Return the table view cell for each part of the table view

extension MyTableViewController: UITableViewDelegate {
    // Add support for the delegate methods you want to support
Code language: JavaScript (javascript)

So here, we’ve told our class to conform to two protocols so that it can satisfy the requirements of the table view.

They’re just blueprints

When we look at the above example of the UITableView, when it’s looking for something to be a data source, it’s wanting something that conforms to UITableViewDataSource. It’s basically saying, “If you conform to these blueprints, you, too, can be a data source!”

Don’t look at the presence of ALL protocols available to use as daunting. Remember: it’s just saying there are dozens of blueprint options out there. But they’re only used for specific reasons. UITableView wants its data source to conform to a certain protocol. UIScrollView’s delegate has certain requirements.

And what about what you might make? Would you ever want to make a protocol? Sure. If you ever want to require your types have certain properties or functions, you would create your own protocol. You’d basically be drafting your own blueprints in Swift.

That’s all protocols are. Blueprints. They’re not scary at all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *