Adding Custom Collection Operations (Scala 2.13)


Julien Richard-Foy

This guide shows how to write operations that can be applied to any collection type and return the same collection type, and how to write operations that can be parameterized by the type of collection to build. It is recommended to first read the article about the architecture of the collections.

The following sections present how to consume, produce and transform any collection type.

Consuming any collection

In a first section we show how to write a method consuming any collection instance that is part of the collection hierarchy. We show in a second section how to support collection-like types such as String and Array (which don’t extend IterableOnce).

Consuming any actual collection

Let’s start with the simplest case: consuming any collection. You don’t need to know the precise type of the collection, but just that it is a collection. This can be achieved by taking an IterableOnce[A] as parameter, or an Iterable[A] if you need more than one traversal.

For instance, say we want to implement a sumBy operation that sums the elements of a collection after they have been transformed by a function:

case class User(name: String, age: Int)

val users = Seq(User("Alice", 22), User("Bob", 20))

println(users.sumBy(_.age)) // “42”

We can define the sumBy operation as an extension method, using an implicit class, so that it can be called like a method:

import scala.collection.IterableOnce

implicit class SumByOperation[A](coll: IterableOnce[A]) {
  def sumBy[B](f: A => B)(implicit num: Numeric[B]): B = {
    val it = coll.iterator
    var result = f(
    while (it.hasNext) {
      result =, f(

Unfortunately, this extension method does not work with values of type String and not even with Array. This is because these types are not part of the Scala collections hierarchy. They can be converted to proper collection types, though, but the extension method will not work directly on String and Array because that would require applying two implicit conversions in a row.

Consuming any type that is like a collection

If we want the sumBy to work on any type that is like a collection, such as String and Array, we have to add another indirection level:

import scala.collection.generic.IsIterable

class SumByOperation[A](coll: IterableOnce[A]) {
  def sumBy[B](f: A => B)(implicit num: Numeric[B]): B = ... // same as before

implicit def SumByOperation[Repr](coll: Repr)(implicit it: IsIterable[Repr]): SumByOperation[it.A] =
  new SumByOperation[it.A](it(coll))

The type IsIterable[Repr] has implicit instances for all types Repr that can be converted to IterableOps[A, Iterable, C] (for some element type A and some collection type C). There are instances for actual collection types and also for String and Array.

Consuming a more specific collection than Iterable

In some cases we want (or need) the receiver of the operation to be more specific than Iterable. For instance, some operations make sense only on Seq but not on Set.

In such a case, again, the most straightforward solution would be to take as parameter a Seq instead of an Iterable or an IterableOnce, but this would work only with actual Seq values. If you want to support String and Array values you have to use IsSeq instead. IsSeq is similar to IsIterable but provides a conversion to SeqOps[A, Iterable, C] (for some types A and C).

Using IsSeq is also required to make your operation work on SeqView values, because SeqView does not extend Seq. Similarly, there is an IsMap type that makes operations work with both Map and MapView values.

Producing any collection

This situation happens when a library provides an operation that produces a collection while leaving the choice of the precise collection type to the user.

For instance, consider a type class Gen[A], whose instances define how to produce values of type A. Such a type class is typically used to create arbitrary test data. Our goal is to define a collection operation that generates arbitrary collections containing arbitrary values. Here is an example of use of collection:

scala> collection[List, Int].get
res0: List[Int] = List(606179450, -1479909815, 2107368132, 332900044, 1833159330, -406467525, 646515139, -575698977, -784473478, -1663770602)

scala> collection[LazyList, Boolean].get
res1: LazyList[Boolean] = LazyList(_, ?)

scala> collection[Set, Int].get
res2: Set[Int] = HashSet(-1775377531, -1376640531, -1009522404, 526943297, 1431886606, -1486861391)

A very basic definition of Gen[A] could be the following:

trait Gen[A] {
  /** Get a generated value of type `A` */
  def get: A

And the following instances can be defined:

import scala.util.Random

object Gen {

  /** Generator of `Int` values */
  implicit def int: Gen[Int] =
    new Gen[Int] { def get: Int = Random.nextInt() }

  /** Generator of `Boolean` values */
  implicit def boolean: Gen[Boolean] =
    new Gen[Boolean] { def get: Boolean = Random.nextBoolean() }

  /** Given a generator of `A` values, provides a generator of `List[A]` values */
  implicit def list[A](implicit genA: Gen[A]): Gen[List[A]] =
    new Gen[List[A]] {
      def get: List[A] =
        if (Random.nextInt(100) < 10) Nil
        else genA.get :: get


The last definition (list) generates a value of type List[A] given a generator of values of type A. We could implement a generator of Vector[A] or Set[A] as well, but their implementations would be very similar.

Instead, we want to abstract over the type of the generated collection so that users can decide which collection type they want to produce.

To achieve that we have to use scala.collection.Factory:

trait Factory[-A, +C] {

  /** @return A collection of type `C` containing the same elements
    *         as the source collection `it`.
    * @param it Source collection
  def fromSpecific(it: IterableOnce[A]): C

  /** Get a Builder for the collection. For non-strict collection
    * types this will use an intermediate buffer.
    * Building collections with `fromSpecific` is preferred
    * because it can be lazy for lazy collections.
  def newBuilder: Builder[A, C]

The Factory[A, C] trait provides two ways of building a collection C from elements of type A:

  • fromSpecific, converts a source collection of A to a collection C,
  • newBuilder, provides a Builder[A, C].

The difference between these two methods is that the former does not necessarily evaluate the elements of the source collection. It can produce a non-strict collection type (such as LazyList) that does not evaluate its elements unless it is traversed. On the other hand, the builder-based way of constructing the collection necessarily evaluates the elements of the resulting collection. In practice, it is recommended to not eagerly evaluate the elements of the collection.

Finally, here is how we can implement a generator of arbitrary collection types:

import scala.collection.Factory

implicit def collection[CC[_], A](implicit
  genA: Gen[A],
  factory: Factory[A, CC[A]]
): Gen[CC[A]] =
  new Gen[CC[A]] {
    def get: CC[A] = {
      val lazyElements =
        LazyList.unfold(()) { _ =>
          if (Random.nextInt(100) < 10) None
          else Some((genA.get, ()))

The implementation uses a lazy source collection of a random size (lazyElements). Then it calls the fromSpecific method of the Factory to build the collection expected by the user.

Transforming any collection

Transforming collections consists in both consuming and producing collections. This is achieved by combining the techniques described in the previous sections.

For instance, we want to implement an intersperse operation that can be applied to any sequence and returns a sequence with a new element inserted between each element of the source sequence:

List(1, 2, 3).intersperse(0) == List(1, 0, 2, 0, 3)
"foo".intersperse(' ') == "f o o"

When we call it on a List, we want to get back another List, and when we call it on a String we want to get back another String, and so on.

Building on what we’ve learned from the previous sections, we can start defining an extension method using IsSeq and producing a collection by using an implicit Factory:

import scala.collection.{ AbstractIterator, AbstractView, Factory, SeqOps }
import scala.collection.generic.IsSeq

class IntersperseOperation[A](seqOps: SeqOps[A, Iterable, _]) {
  def intersperse[B >: A, That](sep: B)(implicit factory: Factory[B, That]): That =
    factory.fromSpecific(new AbstractView[B] {
      def iterator = new AbstractIterator[B] {
        val it = seqOps.iterator
        var intersperseNext = false
        def hasNext = intersperseNext || it.hasNext
        def next() = {
          val elem = if (intersperseNext) sep else
          intersperseNext = !intersperseNext && it.hasNext

implicit def IntersperseOperation[Repr](coll: Repr)(implicit seq: IsSeq[Repr]): IntersperseOperation[seq.A] =
  new IntersperseOperation(seq(coll))

However, if we try it we get the following behaviour:

scala> List(1, 2, 3).intersperse(0)
res0: Array[Int] = Array(1, 0, 2, 0, 3)

We get back an Array although the source collection was a List! Indeed, there is nothing that constrains the result type of intersperse to depend on the receiver type.

To produce a collection whose type depends on a source collection, we have to use scala.collection.BuildFrom (formerly known as CanBuildFrom) instead of Factory. BuildFrom is defined as follows:

trait BuildFrom[-From, -A, +C] {
  /** @return a collection of type `C` containing the same elements
    * (of type `A`) as the source collection `it`.
  def fromSpecificIterable(from: From)(it: Iterable[A]): C

  /** @return a Builder for the collection type `C`, containing
    * elements of type `A`.
  def newBuilder(from: From): Builder[A, C]

BuildFrom has similar operations to Factory, but they take an additional from parameter. Before explaining how implicit instances of BuildFrom are resolved, let’s first have a look at how you can use it. Here is the implementation of intersperse based on BuildFrom:

import scala.collection.{ AbstractView, BuildFrom }
import scala.collection.generic.IsSeq

class IntersperseOperation[Repr, S <: IsSeq[Repr]](coll: Repr, seq: S) {
  def intersperse[B >: seq.A, That](sep: B)(implicit bf: BuildFrom[Repr, B, That]): That = {
    val seqOps = seq(coll)
    bf.fromSpecific(coll)(new AbstractView[B] {
      // same as before

implicit def IntersperseOperation[Repr](coll: Repr)(implicit seq: IsSeq[Repr]): IntersperseOperation[Repr, seq.type] =
  new IntersperseOperation(coll, seq)

Note that we track the type of the receiver collection Repr in the IntersperseOperation class. Now, consider what happens when we write the following expression:

List(1, 2, 3).intersperse(0)

An implicit parameter of type BuildFrom[Repr, B, That] has to be resolved by the compiler. The type Repr is constrained by the receiver type (here, List[Int]) and the type B is inferred by the value passed as a separator (here, Int). Finally, the type of the collection to produce, That is fixed by the resolution of the BuildFrom parameter. In our case, there is a BuildFrom[List[Int], Int, List[Int]] instance that fixes the result type to be List[Int].


  • To consume any collection, take an IterableOnce (or something more specific such as Iterable, Seq, etc.) as parameter,
    • To also support String, Array and View, use IsIterable,
  • To produce a collection given its type, use a Factory,
  • To produce a collection based on the type of a source collection and the type of elements of the collection to produce, use BuildFrom.

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