Creating a GUI application in Haskell

This time we’re developing a calculator using bindings to GTK+. This tutorial in particular would be great for Haskell beginners and others who come from an imperative background.

Published: Jun. 22, 2016

Last updated: Jul. 14, 2023

This tutorial shows how to build a graphical user interface (GUI) application in Haskell using bindings to GTK+. While working on a calculator program we'll cover the following topics:

  • GTK+ terminology
  • Writing handlers that process user's actions (button click, etc.)
  • Introducing global state
  • Manual creation of forms and creation of forms using Glade

Once you finish with the tutorial you will have a solid understanding of how to move on, read the documentation of the gtk3 package, and accomplish your tasks.

The tutorial does not assume any knowledge of Haskell except for a very basic understanding of how to work with the IO monad. The GTK+ binding is very straightforward and imperative in its nature. This may be seen as a downside, but I think it also may make things easier for newcomers to Haskell programming with an imperative background.

Available libraries

Before we start with GTK+ bindings, it's reasonable to ask whether there is a better/alternative solution. Indeed, several libraries are available to create GUI in Haskell:

  • wx — bindings to wxWidgets. A couple of things about this package I find suspicious: 1) it had delays in development when for a couple of years no new version was released, 2) it's still not present on Stackage. A practical conclusion from the point 2 is that it's not very popular nowadays, or at least not many Haskellers start writing any application with it otherwise it would be added already.

  • X11direct translation of the C binding to X11 graphics library (quote taken from the package description). “Direct translation” means that you pass around pointers. Yes, in Haskell code. For documentation authors suggest to look here (although Haddocks are not blank either). Last release was in May 2014.

  • hsqml — the Haskell bindings to Qt Quick. Missing from Stackage. Releases seem to happen once a year.

  • fltkhs — the Haskell bindings to the FLTK GUI library. The package seems to be pretty new and I personally don't see any benefit in using it over more mature solutions.

As to GTK+, it seems to be:

  • Easy to install.

  • Robust and mature. Documentation is quite good and comprehensive.

It's worth mentioning that Haskell has developed much stronger ecosystem with respect to web-development than GUI and desktop development in general. For further reference about the state of standalone GUI applications in Haskell, refer to:


Please see this article for Gtk2Hs installation. It has instructions for Windows, Linux, Mac, and FreeBSD.

First steps

The calculator application has been chosen because its logic is very straightforward and we can focus on working with the GTK+ framework without much distraction while keeping the tutorial reasonably practical.

Let's start by importing some modules:

import Control.Monad
import Control.Monad.IO.Class
import Data.IORef
import Graphics.UI.Gtk hiding (Action, backspace)

As I said, GTK+ bindings are very imperative. All binding code lives in IO monad except for some cases that we will cover shortly.

main :: IO ()
main = do
  void initGUI          -- (1)
  window <- windowNew   -- (2)
                        -- (3)
  widgetShowAll window  -- (4)
  mainGUI               -- (5)
  1. The first thing we need to do in any program that uses GTK+ is to call the initGUI function. This function allocates some resources and prepares GTK+ for work, it also looks up command line arguments that are relevant to GTK+, parses them, and returns all non-parsed arguments. For our purposes, we don't need the command line arguments, so let's wrap it with the void.

  2. Next, we need a window to build the interface of our calculator inside it. To create a new top-level window we use the newWindow action. It returns an opaque Window value that can be used to manipulate the window.

  3. After creation of a new window we typically want to change some parameters and then render it. For now we just render the window “as is”, but in the next section we will see how to customize widgets using attributes.

  4. widgetShowAll works with any kind of widget. It performs all the necessary allocations and makes widget passed to it as an argument visible together with all its children widgets.

  5. mainGUI is the main loop. The loop listens to events such as button click and mouse pointer movement and let appropriate handlers run.

A note about threads. Make sure that all GTK actions happen on the same OS thread (note, this is different from lightweight Haskell threads). This is only important when you compile with multi-threaded runtime, but who knows, maybe the need for concurrent execution will arise later, so my advice is to keep all GTK-related code in one thread and the simplest way to do it is to keep everything is the main thread. For more information about multi-threaded GUIs with GTK+ see here.

If we compile and run the program we will see the following:

First look at the calculator application

Nothing fancy. One nasty detail is that when we close the window the program continues to run. This is because the default handler for click on the “close” button of window just makes it invisible, and the main loop mainGUI continues to run. We will see how to handle this situation properly soon.


Attributes allow to customize widgets, such as our window. There are two methods to specify widget attributes:

  1. Set them with the set action.

  2. Use Glade to design your UI.

We will touch the second option later, but for now let's become familiar with the set action. Typical usage of set is the following:

set widget [ attributeA := valueA, attributeB := valueB,  ]

The GTK modules are structured by widget type, and every module typically has the “attributes” section. This is how to find out which attributes we can tweak. For example a Window has the following:

  • windowTitle
  • windowType
  • windowResizable

…and many others. Let's change title of our window and make it non-resizeable:

main :: IO ()
main = do
  void initGUI
  window <- windowNew
  set window [ windowTitle         := "Calculator"
             , windowResizeable    := False
             , windowDefaultWidth  := 230
             , windowDefaultHeight := 250 ]
  widgetShowAll window

Looks like it works:

Calculator window with adjusted attributes


Still, even non-resizable window with title is boring. What we would like to do is to put something inside that window. This brings us to the GTK+ notion of container. A container is a widget that can contain another widgets inside. There are two types of containers:

  • those that serve purely decorative purpose and can contain only one widget;

  • those that help organize forms and can contain several widgets.

Inner widgets are typically called children, while the enclosing widget is called parent.

Most important actions that you will want to perform on containers are:

  • containerAdd parent child to add child widget to parent widget

  • containerRemove parent child to remove child widget from parent widget

  • containerGetChildren to get all children of a container widget

  • containerForeach to perform an action on all children of a container

For now we will need a non-editable text area where we will show the number that is being entered and result of computations:

main :: IO ()
main = do
  display <- entryNew
  set display [ entryEditable := False
              , entryXalign   := 1 -- makes contents right-aligned
              , entryText     := "0" ]

We use the Entry widget to display numbers, but it's not editable and right-aligned. We don't hurry to insert it into our window because we need some sort of “grid” to make the form look like a real calculator.

Indeed, there is the Grid widget in the Graphics.UI.Gtk.Layout.Grid module. This is an example of a more complex container that has its own interface for better control of layout. We will be using the following functions from its API:

-- | Creates a 'Grid'.
gridNew :: IO Grid

-- | Sets whether all rows of grid will have the same height.
gridSetRowHomogeneous :: GridClass self
  => self              -- ^ The grid
  -> Bool              -- ^ 'True' to make rows homogeneous
  -> IO ()

-- | Adds a widget to the grid. The position of child is determined by left
-- and top. The number of “cells” that child will occupy is determined by
-- width and height.
gridAttach :: (GridClass self, WidgetClass child)
  => self    -- ^ The grid
  -> child   -- ^ The widget to add
  -> Int     -- ^ The column number to attach the left side of child to
  -> Int     -- ^ The row number to attach the top side of child to
  -> Int     -- ^ Width — the number of columns that child will span
  -> Int     -- ^ Height — the number of rows that child will span
  -> IO ()

gridNew and gridSetRowHomogeneous should be self-explanatory. gridAttach allows to insert widgets into the grid controlling their position and size. This is very handy for our calculator application, let's use it:

main :: IO ()
main = do
  grid <- gridNew                  -- (1)
  gridSetRowHomogeneous grid True  -- (2)
  let attach x y w h item = gridAttach grid item x y w h -- (3)
  attach 0 0 5 1 display           -- (4)
  mkBtn "MC"  >>= attach 0 1 1 1   -- (5)
  mkBtn "MR"  >>= attach 1 1 1 1
  mkBtn "MS"  >>= attach 2 1 1 1
  mkBtn "M+"  >>= attach 3 1 1 1
  mkBtn "M–"  >>= attach 4 1 1 1
  mkBtn "←"   >>= attach 0 2 1 1
  mkBtn "CE"  >>= attach 1 2 1 1
  mkBtn "C"   >>= attach 2 2 1 1
  mkBtn "±"   >>= attach 3 2 1 1
  mkBtn "√"   >>= attach 4 2 1 1
  mkBtn "7"   >>= attach 0 3 1 1
  mkBtn "8"   >>= attach 1 3 1 1
  mkBtn "9"   >>= attach 2 3 1 1
  mkBtn "÷"   >>= attach 3 3 1 1
  mkBtn "%"   >>= attach 4 3 1 1
  mkBtn "4"   >>= attach 0 4 1 1
  mkBtn "5"   >>= attach 1 4 1 1
  mkBtn "6"   >>= attach 2 4 1 1
  mkBtn "*"   >>= attach 3 4 1 1
  mkBtn "1/x" >>= attach 4 4 1 1
  mkBtn "1"   >>= attach 0 5 1 1
  mkBtn "2"   >>= attach 1 5 1 1
  mkBtn "3"   >>= attach 2 5 1 1
  mkBtn "–"   >>= attach 3 5 1 1
  mkBtn "="   >>= attach 4 5 1 2
  mkBtn "0"   >>= attach 0 6 2 1
  mkBtn "."   >>= attach 2 6 1 1
  mkBtn "+"   >>= attach 3 6 1 1
  containerAdd window grid         -- (6)
  1. gridNew creates a new grid.

  2. gridSetRowHomogeneous grid True makes every row have equal height.

  3. Here we define the attach helper function. It attaches given widget to our grid. The argument order of this function helps to use it with (>>=).

  4. We attach the display we created previously to the grid. It will occupy the entire top row.

  5. Here we use combination of the mkBtn helper and attach to quickly create buttons and place them on the grid. I'll show what mkBtn is in a moment.

  6. Now the grid itself needs to be inserted into window to be visible. This is done with help of the above-mentioned containerAdd function.

mkBtn is a helper for button creation, right now it's very simple:

mkBtn :: String -> IO Button
mkBtn label = do
  btn <- buttonNew
  set btn [ buttonLabel := label ]
  return btn

We create a new button, set its attributes (just label in our case) and return the button.

Our calculator looks like a real calculator

Signals and events

The application looks like a calculator but does not behave like one yet. To fix this, we need to learn about signals and events.

Signal is a name for things that may happen on the form. Almost always signals are connected with user's actions. An example of signal is focus — the moment when a widget becomes active on the form.

To execute some code on signal we use the on helper:

on :: object -> Signal object callback -> callback -> IO (ConnectId object)

Here object is the widget of interest, callback is the action that we want to perform. The on function returns ConnectId parametrized over the object type (so we cannot mix up connection identifiers for different types of objects). This is the identifier of signal handler and its sole purpose is to give you a way to disconnect a signal handler if you ever need it. You can use the disconnect function from System.Glib.Signals to do that.

Every signal dictates the type that callback function will have. The following cases are the most frequent:

  • Just IO (): no information is given to the handler and it is not expected to return anything. Example of such signal is showSignal.

  • Handlers that are given arguments: a -> IO Bool. Example of such signal is focus whose handlers have the type DirectionType -> IO Bool. Another interesting thing here is returned value of the type Bool. This is a convention in GTK+ allowing to disable default handling of some signals. If we return True, default handling will be disabled, while False will keep it active executing our handler and default handler as well.

There is one more way to get some information from within a signal's handler. Some signals dictate that handler should live in a special monad called EventM instead of plain IO. Signals that like their handlers to be in EventM are called events.

What is the EventM monad? Actually it's a type synonym for a simple monad stack with IO at the bottom:

type EventM t = ReaderT (Ptr t) IO

This is just a reader monad transformer on top of IO. t specifies the type of information we can extract and which helper function we can use inside the EventM monad. These are different for every event. For example, configureEvent allows to extract information about window size, while keyPressEvent event provides information about the key that has been pressed, which modifier key was held at that time and so forth. The type system does not allow to try to extract information that particular event does not provide.

I would like to quote the docs to accent the importance of returned Boolean value:

Note that an event handler must always return True if the event was handled or False if the event should be dealt with by another event handler. For instance, a handler for a key press should return False if the pressed key is not one of those that the widget reacts to. In this case the event is passed to the parent widgets. This ensures that pressing, say, Alt-F opens the file menu even if the current input focus is in a text entry widget. In order to facilitate writing handlers that may abort handling an event, this module provides the function tryEvent. This function catches pattern match exceptions and returns False. If the signal successfully runs to its end, it returns True.

Knowing all that, we can write a simple handler to run on button activation. Looking at the “signals” section in Graphics.UI.Gtk.Buttons.Button, buttonActivated looks like our friend here:

-- | Emitted when the button has been activated (pressed and released).
buttonActivated :: ButtonClass self => Signal self (IO ())

Just for a test, let's re-write mkBtn to attach a handler that will update the display with the name of the pressed button (we still don't know a whole lot to make a working calculator):

mkBtn :: String -> Entry -> IO Button
mkBtn label display = do
  btn <- buttonNew
  set btn [ buttonLabel := label ]
  btn `on` buttonActivated $
    set display [ entryText := label ]
  return btn

And we need to pass display to mkBtn like this:

  mkBtn "MC"  display >>= attach 0 1 1 1
  mkBtn "MR"  display >>= attach 1 1 1 1

Another thing that we can deal with now is proper closing of our application. For this we need a way to call the mainQuit function:

-- | Exit the main event loop.
mainQuit :: IO ()

As you may have guessed by now, a convenient place to put the mainQuit function is on closing of window. The event that we're looking for is called deleteEvent:

-- | The deleteEvent signal is emitted if a user requests that a toplevel
-- window is closed. The default handler for this signal destroys the window.
-- Calling 'widgetHide' and returning 'True' on reception of this signal will
-- cause the window to be hidden instead, so that it can later be shown again
-- without reconstructing it.
deleteEvent :: WidgetClass self => Signal self (EventM EAny Bool)

In our case we just want to close it, so:

  containerAdd window grid
  window `on` deleteEvent $ do -- handler to run on window destruction
    liftIO mainQuit
    return False
  widgetShowAll window

Note that deleteEvent parametrizes EventM type by EAny type-level tag. Its description:

-- | A tag for events that do not carry any event-specific information.
data EAny

Even though it does not carry any event-specific information, a lot of useful information can be extracted, such as current time at the moment when event fired (eventTime). See full list of helpers in the “Accessor functions for event information” section of the Graphics.UI.Gtk.Gdk.EventM module.

I encourage you to compile and run the application to see that it responds to button activation and closes properly.

Using IORefs for application state

Buttons can change display dynamically, but it's still not enough to make our calculator actually useful. For this (as with most other applications), we need some sort of state.

The creators of GTK+ binding didn't give us too many options here because type of handler monad is fixed: it's either plain IO or EventM, which, as we already know, is just ReaderT (Ptr t) IO. We cannot return anything non-standard from handlers, so the only way to communicate with outside world is via mutable references.

There are two most obvious options:

  • IORefs — mutable references inside IO monad.

  • TVars from Control.Concurrent.STM.

TVars are probably overkill unless you do complex concurrent work. What is good about using TVars is that we can update them atomically. This may be not very important for some applications, but I recommend to build with concurrency in mind from the very beginning. But IORefs can be changed atomically as well with help of atomicModifyIORef.

Now we got to the question how to model calculator logic. Since actual logic is not our primary concern in this tutorial, we will go the easy way.

-- | 'Value' holds textual representation of first argument reversed and
-- 'Action' to apply to it, which see.
data Value = Value String (Maybe Action)

-- | Action to apply to first argument and textual representation of second
-- argument reversed (if relevant).
data Action
  = Addition       String
  | Subtraction    String
  | Multiplication String
  | Division       String

Value is our state, it contains textual representation of first argument and optionally representation of action that should be performed on it. The Strings representing arguments are reversed because this way it's faster to add/drop a character at the end of the string. We will reverse the strings back when it's time to turn them into Doubles.

We will need a couple of helper functions too. Here they are:

-- | Change second argument inside of 'Action'.
mapAction :: (String -> String) -> Action -> Action
mapAction f (Addition       x) = Addition       (f x)
mapAction f (Subtraction    x) = Subtraction    (f x)
mapAction f (Multiplication x) = Multiplication (f x)
mapAction f (Division       x) = Division       (f x)

-- | Get second argument from 'Action'.
getSndArg :: Action -> String
getSndArg (Addition       x) = x
getSndArg (Subtraction    x) = x
getSndArg (Multiplication x) = x
getSndArg (Division       x) = x

-- | Render given 'Value'.
renderValue :: Value -> String
renderValue (Value x action) =
  g x ++ f a ++ (if null y then "" else g y)
    (a, y) =
      case action of
        Nothing                   -> ("", "")
        Just (Addition       arg) -> ("+", arg)
        Just (Subtraction    arg) -> ("–", arg)
        Just (Multiplication arg) -> ("*", arg)
        Just (Division       arg) -> ("÷", arg)
    f "" = ""
    f l  = " " ++ l ++ " "
    g "" = "0"
    g xs = reverse xs

The first two help change and extract the second argument in Action, while renderValue does its best to render current calculator state. Having renderValue, it's easy to write a function that would update the calculator display:

-- | Make calculator's display show given 'Value'.
updateDisplay :: Entry -> Value -> IO ()
updateDisplay display value =
  set display [ entryText := renderValue value ]

Finally, instead of mkBtn let's have mkButton of the following form:

-- | Create a button and attach handler to it that mutates calculator's
-- state with given function.
  :: IORef Value       -- ^ 'IORef' to calculator state
  -> Entry             -- ^ Our display to update
  -> String            -- ^ Button label
  -> (Value -> Value)  -- ^ How this button affects calculator state
  -> IO Button         -- ^ Resulting button object
mkButton st display label mutateState = do
  btn <- buttonNew
  set btn [ buttonLabel := label ]
  btn `on` buttonActivated $ do  -- (1)
    value <- atomicModifyIORef st $ \x -> let r = mutateState x in (r, r) -- (2)
    updateDisplay display value  -- (3)
  return btn
  1. Just like before we register a handler that will fire on button activation.

  2. atomicModifyIORef modifies given IORef atomically. The callback should return a tuple, first element is the new value to put into IORef, second value is the return value of the action. In this case we want the values to be equal.

  3. We call updateDisplay to make results of last action visible to the user.

Now we can define a helper called mkBtn in main:

main :: IO ()
main = do
  st <- newIORef (Value "" Nothing)  -- (1)
  void initGUI
  window <- windowNew
  set window [ windowTitle         := "Calculator"
             , windowResizable     := False
             , windowDefaultWidth  := 230
             , windowDefaultHeight := 250 ]
  display <- entryNew
  set display [ entryEditable := False
              , entryXalign   := 1 -- makes contents right-aligned
              , entryText     := "0" ]
  grid <- gridNew
  gridSetRowHomogeneous grid True
  let attach x y w h item = gridAttach grid item x y w h
      mkBtn = mkButton st display    -- (2)
  attach 0 0 5 1 display
  mkBtn "MC"  id >>= attach 0 1 1 1  -- (3)
  mkBtn "MR"  id >>= attach 1 1 1 1
  1. We need to create IORef to keep the program's state there. Value "" Nothing is its initial value.

  2. The helper function mkBtn uses previously written mkButton and just saves us the boilerplate of passing st and display again and again.

  3. Some examples of mkBtn use. By passing id as state mutating function we make buttons have no effect, but all the machinery for actual work is already in place.

The only thing that remains is state-mutating functions per button. Here I will show some of them:

-- | Change state as if a dot is entered.
enterDot :: Value -> Value
enterDot (Value x action) =
  let f xs = if '.' `elem` xs then xs else '.' : xs
  in case action of
       Nothing -> Value (f x) Nothing
       Just  a -> Value x (Just $ mapAction f a)

-- | Change state as if specific char (digit) is entered.
enterDigit :: Char -> Value -> Value
enterDigit ch (Value x action) =
  case action of
    Nothing -> Value (ch:x) Nothing
    Just  a -> Value x (Just $ mapAction (ch:) a)

-- | Change state as if last character of current argument is removed.
backspace :: Value -> Value
backspace (Value x action) =
  case action of
    Nothing -> Value (drop 1 x) Nothing
    Just  a -> Value x (Just $ mapAction (drop 1) a)

-- | Apply given operator to current state. If some action is already fully
-- constructed, evaluate it first.
operator :: (String -> Action) -> Value -> Value
operator op value =
  let (Value x action) = equals value
  in Value x $ Just $
    case action of
      Nothing -> op ""
      Just  a -> op (getSndArg a)

-- | Change state as if current argument is removed.
clearEntry :: Value -> Value
clearEntry (Value x action) =
  case action of
    Nothing -> Value "" Nothing
    Just  a ->
      if null (getSndArg a)
        then Value "" Nothing
        else Value x (Just $ mapAction (const "") a)

-- | Change state returning it to the default value.
clearAll :: Value -> Value
clearAll = const (Value "" Nothing)

-- | Evaluate current calculator's state putting result in place of first
-- argument.
equals :: Value -> Value
equals (Value x action) =
  case action of
    Nothing -> Value x Nothing
    Just  a ->
      if null (getSndArg a)
        then Value x action
        else Value result Nothing
            g  :: String -> Double
            g ""       = 0
            g ('.':xs) = g ('0':'.':xs)
            g xs       = read (reverse xs)
            x' = g x
            y' = g (getSndArg a)
            result = reverse . show $
              case a of
                Addition       _ -> x' + y'
                Subtraction    _ -> x' - y'
                Multiplication _ -> x' * y'
                Division       _ -> x' / y'

The calculator is not perfect, but good enough for our purposes. Compile, run it and see how it works. Implementation of the rest of functionality is left as an exercise for the reader.

Using Glade to design forms

You may have probably noticed that manual creation of forms introduces quite a bit of boilerplate in our code. This can become even worse as your forms get more complex. Because of this, I think it's time to try our hand on a modern UI designer for GTK+ called Glade.

Glade is straightforward to install and use. Open the application, you will see panels with various widgets: top-level objects (such as window), containers, and controls (such as buttons).

Here is the plan how to re-create our calculator form with Glade:

  1. Select window button on the topmost palette and the window will appear on the working area.

  2. Enter “Calculator” in the title field.

  3. Don't forget to fill out the “ID” attribute of every widget, this is how you will access widgets on your form in the Haskell code.

  4. Create grid with id grid. When asked about number of rows and columns, choose 7 × 5. Select the “Homogeneous” check box under the “Rows” title.

  5. Insert entry, use “Drag and resize widgets in the workspace” button on the top tool bar to make it occupy the entire top row.

  6. Insert buttons to match our existing design.

Building the calculator form in Glade

(Here is a bigger image.)

Hint: the complete Glade form of our calculator is available under the Stack Builders tutorial repository.

To use the form in Haskell code we need Builder, which lives in Graphics.UI.Gtk.Builder module. The Builder object helps with creating UI from XML files on the fly.

Here is how we could use it in our program:

  builder <- builderNew                                 -- (1)
  builderAddFromFile builder ""               -- (2)
  btn0 <- builderGetObject builder castToButton "btn_0" -- (3)
  1. We need to create a new builder.

  2. Load our form into it from a file. There are other options such as loading form text (String, Text) and so forth. Consult the docs for more information.

  3. Now the interesting part is that we can get actual button object knowing its identifier. For example here I'm retrieving button that inputs zeros, it has the "btn_0" identifier on my form. castToButton casts abstract representatin of an object to its typed form. There are many castToSomething functions, one per widget (for example we have castToWindow for windows).

Having the actual object like that button or the main window itself, it's easy to proceed just like with the manually constructed form to start the main loop.


GTK+ Haskell binding certainly can be used to create professional-looking user interfaces. As I hopefully showed you in this tutorial, using the bindings is very straightforward and doesn't require any special knowledge. For small forms Glade probably doesn't make much sense, but if you write something big, it may save you some tiresome work. Better yet, one doesn't have to be a Haskell programmer to design UI with Glade — this fact makes it easier to divide work between people.

See also

Written by:

Mark Karpov

Mark Karpov