Functional Interfaces

Functional interfaces was introduced in Kotlin 1.4 and is a way of giving lambdas proper types which can make our code more readable and make the intent clearer.

3 min read


By Vegard Veiset


December 21, 2020

Let's start with a simple lambda. A lambda can typically be written as follows:

val uppercaseFn: (String) -> String = {
println(uppercaseFn("Hello")) // HELLO

If you need a refresher on lambdas check out last year's post about lambdas. To make our code easier to understand we can replace the lambda type signatures with a typealias:

typealias Uppercase = (String) -> String
val uppercaseFn: Uppercase = {
println(uppercaseFn("Hello")) // HELLO

Typealiases are just syntactic sugar that will be rewritten to the underlying type at compilation, this means that the typealias Uppercase will be replaced with (String) ->String when we compile. The issue with using typealiases is that it doesn’t ensure we pass a function with the corresponding typealias, we can pass any function that matches the signature of the typealias. Typealiases still work wonders to make complex types easier to read, but we get no guarantee that the function we pass actually uses the type alias.

fun myFunction: (String) -> String = { it.upperCase() }
fun uppercase: Uppercase = { it.upperCase() }
fun doStuff(f: Uppercase) = f()

doStuff(myFunction) // valid
doStuff(uppercase) // valid

As we see in the example sending both functions are valid, even though only one uses the typealias. My suggestion is to be careful when using typealiases and make them private so the false abstraction doesn’t leak into our codebase. Now for functional interfaces. A functional interface, or a single abstract method (SAM), is an interface with a single abstract method. It can have multiple methods but only a single abstract one. Let's start with an example of a functional interface where we want to add a suffix to a string.

fun interface Suffix {
    fun exclaim(s: String): String
val suffixFn: Suffix = Suffix {
println(suffixFn.exclaim("Hello") // "Hello!"

Here we define an interface for our function and we can create a function based on that interface. The syntax for creating a function when using functional interfaces is Interface { body }, and in our case we use the Suffix interface to create a function body that returns an exclaimed string. Now we actually have a type for our function meaning that we can use that to restrict what another function will accept as a parameter.

fun doStuff(fn: Suffix) = fn.exclaim("Hello")

One thing we can see from the example is that we need to invoke the function we defined in our interface, e.g suffixFn.excliam. A neat trick to get around this is to use the invoke operator.

fun interface Prefix {
    operator fun invoke(s: String): String
val prefixFn: Prefix = Prefix {
println(prefixFn("Hello")) // "~Hello"

Now we can simply call the prefixFn without an additional namespace.

As with regular lambdas we can also return functions from functional interfaces. This might help us break down complex function signatures to more manageable types.

fun interface Math {
    fun value(s: Int): (Int) -> Int
val timesX = Math { times ->
    { it * times }
val timesTwo = timesX.value(2)
println(timesTwo(5)) // 10

In simple cases using the type signature is good enough and we can get away without using typealiases or function interfaces. When our types get more complex we probably want to introduce something to help us with that, and functional interfaces is the way to go. They give us proper type safety that we won’t get with typealiases!