The Observer Pattern (or Publisher-Subscriber)

The “Gang of Four” defines it as “Define a one-to-many dependency between objects so that when one object changes state, all its dependents are notified and updated automatically” (1).

Why would I need such a thing? Let me illustrate the answer.

When I was a teenager, mobile phones were not yet available. My friends and I decided to spend our Saturday afternoon at the mall. We called each other to set up a time and place where to meet. When I got there, I saw no one. After waiting for a while, I decided to leave. Once at home, I called one of my friends who told me they had cancelled. Someone called someone else, who called someone else while the other one called another person, etc. Unfortunately, by the time I was supposed to get the message, I was already in the city bus.

It would have been great to have a Facebook group that we all joined, and get the cancellation message quickly. You see the problem was that the message somehow got lost between friends. Maybe some got busy with other things. Maybe others forgot to update me, or thought someone else had done it before, etc.

That’s where the Observer pattern is useful. My illustration is not a perfect fit though, but let’s say the person who cancelled was the leader of the group. He is the one in command, and he decides what to do. In the Observer pattern, he is usually called the “subject,” and each member of the group “observer.”

The observer decide to get notifications from the subject.

public class GroupLeader {
  public void attach(Observer obs) {
    // add to the list

  public void detach(Observer obs) {
    // remove of the list

  public void notifiy() {
    // go through the list and notify each observer of a change
    for each observer:
      observer.update("this is the new message")
public class GroupMember {
  public void update(String message) {
    // do something

The advantages are:

  1. Each member receives the same message.
  2. Each member do not need to worry about the others.
  3. Each member can be responsible for their own task

This pattern is a top-bottom behavior. There is only one who can send messages. A better design pattern for group messaging may be the Mediator Pattern where multiple objects can send messages to others. Which one should you choose? It really depends on what you are trying to accomplish.

(1) John Vlissides; Ralph Johnson; Erich Gamma; Richard Helm. Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software. Published by Addison-Wesley Professional, 1994, p. 293

Author: Toujon Lyfoung

This paragraph is supposed to be the place where I put my credentials and achievements. In my opinion, degrees and jobs do not tell much about a person. If you want to know me, read my posts! Blogging has been fun. I do not pretend to do much. I am simply processing, tracking and sharing my reflection. Comments are definitely welcomed to help me continue in my learning.

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