Irregular JSON decoding in Go


The Go standard library has an awesome JSON encoding and decoding package, which makes handling JSON a breeze. If you’re not familiar with the package, there are plenty of web pages around that explain its basic usage.

Basically, if you know the structure of the JSON value you’re encoding, you create the zero value of the corresponding Go type, and pass a pointer to it into the json.Unmarshal (along with the JSON value). Magic occurs, and your Go object is now populated. If you don’t know the structure of your JSON value upfront, you can instead pass in a map[string]interface{}, and that will be populated instead. Type assertions can then be used on the empty interfaces to determine what actually got decoded.

But what if you know the precise structure of the JSON, but it’s not regular? For example, the following JSON value represents a ray tracer scene. The array "Objects" contains a known structure, but each element isn’t of the same type. Objects of type "box" will always have "Corner1" and "Corner2" fields, and objects of type "sphere" will always have "Centre" and "Radius" fields.

    "Colour": "white",
    "Material": "lambertian",
    "Objects": [
            "Type": "box",
            "Corner1": {"X":0,"Y":1,"Z":2},
            "Corner2": {"X":5,"Y":6,"Z":7}
            "Type": "sphere",
            "Centre": {"X":2,"Y":2.5,"Z":-1},
            "Radius": 1.0

I want to decode the JSON value into the follow Go data structure:

type World struct {
    Colour   string
    Material string
    Objects  []Object

type Object interface {
    Contains(Vect) bool

type Box struct {
    Corner1, Corner2 Vect
func (b Box) Contains(Vect) bool { ... }

type Sphere struct {
    Centre Vect
    Radius float64
func (s Sphere) Contains(Vect) bool { ... }

type Vect struct {
    X, Y, Z float64

Go can’t unmarshal the JSON value into World directly. The json.Unmarshal function will return an error “json: cannot unmarshal object into Go value of type main.Object”. This makes sense, since the JSON value and the World Go type both have fields named Objects, but Object is a Go interface, so cannot be unmarshalled into.

We need to perform custom unmarshalling into the World type by implementing the Unmarshaler interface.

func (w *World) UnmarshalJSON(p []byte) error {

    // Unmarshal the regular parts of the JSON value.
    record := struct {
        Colour   string
        Material string
        Objects  []json.RawMessage
    if err := json.Unmarshal(p, &record); err != nil {
        return err
    w.Colour = record.Colour
    w.Material = record.Material

    // Go back to the irregular parts, find each type and unmarshal accordingly.
    for _, rawObject := range record.Objects {

        // Find the type.
        obj := struct{ Type string }{}
        if err := json.Unmarshal(rawObject, &obj); err != nil {
            return err

        // Perform type specific unmarshalling.
        switch obj.Type {
        case "box":
            var b Box
            if err := json.Unmarshal(rawObject, &b); err != nil {
                return err
            w.Objects = append(w.Objects, b)
        case "sphere":
            var s Sphere
            if err := json.Unmarshal(rawObject, &s); err != nil {
                return err
            w.Objects = append(w.Objects, s)
    return nil

So what’s happening here? We are essentially doing the following:

  1. Create a variable called record that allows us to decode the regular parts (Colour and Material). It also decodes the irregular parts into json.RawMessage objects.
  2. Iterate over each json.RawMessage, and extract enough information to work out which type we should unmarshal into. In this case, it’s easy, we just look for the "Type" field, and switch based on that.
  3. Decode into the appropriate type as determined in step 2.

Tags: go, golang, json, heterogeneous, homogeneous, marshal, unmarshal, regular, irregular

Copyright © 2017 Peter Stace