Getting the User's Opinion: Options in Haskell

GUI's are hard to create. Luckily for us, we can often get away with making our code available through a command line interface. As you start writing more Haskell programs, you'll probably have to do this at some point.

This article will go over some of the ins and outs of CLI’s. In particular, we’ll look at the basics of handling options. Then we'll see some nifty techniques for actually testing the behavior of our CLI.

A Simple Sample

To motivate the examples in this article, let’s design a simple program We’ll have the user input a message. Then we’ll print the message to a file a certain number of times and list the user’s name as the author at the top. We’ll also allow them to uppercase the message if they want. So we’ll get five pieces of input from the user:

  1. The filename they want
  2. Their name to place at the top
  3. Whether they want to uppercase or not
  4. The message
  5. The repetition number

We’ll use arguments and options for the first three pieces of information. Then we'll have a command line prompt for the other two. For instance, we’ll insist the user pass the expected file name as an argument. Then we’ll take an option for the name the user wants to put at the top. Finally, we’ll take a flag for whether the user wants the message upper-cased. So here are a few different invocations of the program.

>> run-cli “myfile.txt” -n “John Doe”
What message do you want in the file?
Sample Message
How many times should it be repeated?

This will print the following output to myfile.txt:

From: John Doe
Sample Message
Sample Message
Sample Message
Sample Message
Sample Message

Here’s another run, this time with an error in the input:

>> run-cli “myfile2.txt” -n “Jane Doe” -u
What message do you want in the file?
A new message
How many times should it be repeated?
Sorry, that isn't a valid number. Please enter a number.

This file will look like:

From: Jane Doe

Finally, if we don’t get the right arguments, we should get a usage error:

>> run-cli

Usage: CLIPractice-exe FILENAME -n USERNAME [-u]
  Comand Line Sample Program

Getting the Input

So the most important aspect of the program is getting the message and repetitions. We’ll ignore the options for now. We’ll print a couple messages, and then use the getLine function to get their input. There’s no way for them to give us a bad message, so this section is easy.

getMessage :: IO String
getMessage = do
  putStrLn "What message do you want in the file?"

But they might try to give us a number we can’t actually parse. So for this task, we’ll have to set up a loop where we keep asking the user for a number until they give us a good value. This will be recursive in the failure case. If the user won’t enter a valid number, they’ll have no choice but to terminate the program by other means.

getRepetitions :: IO Int
getRepetitions = do
  putStrLn "How many times should it be repeated?"

getNumber :: IO Int
getNumber = do
  rep <- getLine
  case readMaybe rep of
    Nothing -> do
      putStrLn "Sorry, that isn't a valid number. Please enter a number."
    Just i -> return i

Once we’re doing reading the input, we’ll print the output to a file. In this instance, we hard-code all the options for now. Here’s the full program.

import Data.Char (toUpper)
import System.IO (writeFile)
import Text.Read (readMaybe)

runCLI :: IO ()
runCLI = do
  let fileName = "myfile.txt"
  let userName = "John Doe"
  let isUppercase = False
  message <- getMessage
  reps <- getRepetitions
  writeFile fileName (fileContents userName message reps isUppercase)

fileContents :: String -> String -> Int -> Bool -> String
fileContents userName message repetitions isUppercase = unlines $
  ("From: " ++ userName) :
  (replicate repetitions finalMessage)
    finalMessage = if isUppercase 
     then map toUpper message 
    else message

Parsing Options

Now we have to deal with the question of how we actually parse the different options. We can do this by hand with the getArgs function, but this is somewhat error prone. A better option in general is to use the Options.Applicative library. We’ll explore the different possibilities this library allows. We’ll use three different helper functions for the three pieces of input we need.

The first thing we’ll do is build a data structure to hold the different options we want. We want to know the file name to store at, the name at the top, and the uppercase status.

data CommandOptions = CommandOptions
  { fileName :: FilePath
  , userName :: String
  , isUppercase :: Bool }

Now we need to parse each of these. We’ll start with the uppercase value. The most simple parser we have is the flag function. It tells us if a particular flag (we’ll call it -u) is present, we’ll uppercase the message, otherwise not. It gets coded like this with the Options library:

uppercaseParser :: Parser Bool
uppercaseParser = flag False True (short 'u')

Notice we use short in the final argument to denote the flag character. We could also use the switch function, since this flag is only a boolean, but this version is more general.

Now we’ll move on to the argument for the filename. This uses the argument helper function. We’ll use a string parser (str) to ensure we get the actual string. We won’t worry about the filename having a particular format here. Notice we add some metadata to this argument. This tells the user what they are missing if they don’t use the proper format.

fileNameParser :: Parser String
fileNameParser = argument str (metavar "FILENAME")

Finally, we’ll deal with the option of what name will go at the top. We could also do this as an argument, but let’s see what the option is like. An argument is a required positional parameter. An option on the other hand comes after a particular flag. We also add metadata here for a better error message as well. The short piece of our metadata ensures it will use the option character we want.

userNameParser :: Parser FilePath
userNameParser = option str (short 'n' <> metavar "USERNAME")

Now we have to combine these different parsers and add a little more info about our program.

import Options.Applicative (execParser, info, helper, Parser, fullDesc, 
  progDesc, short, metavar, flag, argument, str, option)

parseOptions :: IO CommandOptions
parseOptions = execParser $ info (helper <*> commandOptsParser) commandOptsInfo
    commandOptsParser = CommandOptions <$> fileNameParser <*> userNameParser <*> uppercaseParser
    commandOptsInfo = fullDesc <> progDesc "Command Line Sample Program"

-- Revamped to take options
runCLI :: CommandOptions -> IO ()
runCLI commandOptions = do
  let file = fileName commandOptions
  let user = userName commandOptions
  let uppercase = isUppercase commandOptions
  message <- getMessage
  reps <- getRepetitions
  writeFile file (fileContents user message reps uppercase)

And now we’re done! We build our command object using these three different parsers. We chain the operations together using applicatives! Then we pass the result to our main program. If you aren’t too familiar with functors, and applicatives, we went over these a while ago on the blog. Refresh your memory!

IO Testing

Now we have our program working, we need to ask ourselves how we test its behavior. We can do manual command line tests ourselves, but it would be nice to have an automated solution. The key to this is the Handle abstraction.

Let’s first look at some basic file handling types.

openFile :: FilePath -> IO Handle
hGetLine :: Handle -> IO String
hPutStrLn :: Handle -> IO ()
hClose :: Handle -> IO ()

Normally when we write something to a file, we open a handle for it. We use the handle (instead of the string literal name) for all the different operations. When we’re done, we close the handle.

The good news is that the stdin and stdout streams are actually the exact same Handle type under the hood!

stdin :: Handle
stdout :: Handle

How does this help us test? The first step is to abstract away the handles we’re working with. Instead of using print and getLine, we’ll want to use hGetLine and hPutStrLn. Then we take these parameters as arguments to our program and functions. Let’s look at our reading functions:

getMessage :: Handle -> Handle -> IO String
getMessage inHandle outHandle = do
  hPutStrLn outHandle "What message do you want in the file?"
  hGetLine inHandle

getRepetitions :: Handle -> Handle -> IO Int
getRepetitions inHandle outHandle = do
  hPutStrLn outHandle "How many times should it be repeated?"
  getNumber inHandle outHandle

getNumber :: Handle -> Handle -> IO Int
getNumber inHandle outHandle = do
  rep <- hGetLine inHandle
  case readMaybe rep of
    Nothing -> do
      hPutStrLn outHandle "Sorry, that isn't a valid number. Please enter a number."
      getNumber inHandle outHandle
    Just i -> return i

Once we’ve done this, we can make the input and output handles parameters to our program as follows. Our wrapper executable will pass stdin and stdout:

-- Library File:
runCLI :: Handle -> Handle -> CommandOptions -> IO ()
runCLI inHandle outHandle commandOptions = do
  let file = fileName commandOptions
  let user = userName commandOptions
  let uppercase = isUppercase commandOptions
  message <- getMessage inHandle outHandle
  reps <- getRepetitions inHandle outHandle
  writeFile file (fileContents user message reps uppercase)

-- Executable File
main :: IO ()
main = do
  options <- parseOptions
  runCLI stdin stdout options

Now our library API takes the handles as parameters. This means in our testing code, we can pass whatever handle we want to test the code. And, as you may have guessed, we’ll do this with files, instead of stdin and stdout. We’ll make one file with our expected terminal output:

What message do you want in the file?
How many times should it be repeated?

We’ll make another file with our input:

Sample Message

And then the file we expect to be created:

From: John Doe
Sample Message
Sample Message
Sample Message
Sample Message
Sample Message

Now we can write a test calling our library function. It will pass the expected arguments object as well as the proper file handles. Then we can compare the output of our test file and the output file.

import Lib

import System.IO
import Test.HUnit

main :: IO ()
main = do
  inputHandle <- openFile "input.txt" ReadMode
  outputHandle <- openFile "terminal_output.txt" WriteMode
  runCLI inputHandle outputHandle options
  hClose inputHandle
  hClose outputHandle
  expectedTerminal <- readFile "expected_terminal.txt"
  actualTerminal <- readFile "terminal_output.txt"
  expectedFile <- readFile "expected_output.txt"
  actualFile <- readFile "testOutput.txt"
  assertEqual "Terminal Output Should Match" expectedTerminal actualTerminal
  assertEqual "Output File Should Match" expectedFile actualFile

options :: CommandOptions
options = CommandOptions "testOutput.txt" "John Doe" False

And that’s it! We can also use this process to add tests around the error cases, like when the user enters invalid numbers.


Writing a command line interface isn't always the easiest task. Getting a user’s input sometimes requires creating loops if they won’t give you the information you want. Then dealing with arguments can be a major pain. The Options.Applicative library contains many option parsing tools. It helps you deal with flags, options, and arguments. When you're ready to test your program, you'll want to abstract the file handles away. You can use stdin and stdout from your main executable. But then when you test, you can use files as your input and output handles.

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