~4 min (726 words)

Deserialize JSON field with multiple possible types in Rust

Deserialize data is just like making gears fit into each other.

Ever wondered about serde's custom deserialization because of multiple possible types? Me too! After some researching and testing I found a way to easily convert all possible data types into one single type so your application can handle it.

Rust and strict types - the problem

Rust is a very type safe language, so it's kind of strict with allowing only one specific type per field or variable. This is great but might complicate things a bit if you have to compute, for example, a JSON file where a field (or many) can have multiple types. Like boolean, array, integer and string or maybe even null.
So what can we do about this in Rust? Well, using serde to deserialize the JSON file already helps a lot.
And the fact that you can customize the deserialization (as well as serialization of course) brings us close to a solution.'s doomsday clock

Customized deserialization

Now, you can do a lot with serde, most things work pretty much out of the box. Therefore, in many cases, deserializing a JSON payload is as easy as assigning it a struct.
Even when we're dealing with optional values (i.e., a field not always set in the payload) it's just a matter of setting #[serde(default)] for the field in question in the associated struct.

How to handle multiple types

Like explained above, it gets a bit more complicated when you want to handle a field which can have multiple different types. Basically, what we need now, is a custom deserializer (and serializer for the other way around).

In theory, there are at least three ways to do this:
You can either create multiple fields in your struct for each type and try to assign the values depending on the type. I haven't tried this, yet. Therefore, I'm not entirely sure if it works.

Another way is using an enum like the following code:

#[derive(Debug, Serialize, Deserialize)]
enum MultipleTypes {

This case might even work without a custom serializer by using the struct value like:

#[derive(Debug, Serialize, Deserialize)]
struct MultiStruct {
    key_1: i32,
    key_2: bool,
    key_3: MultipleTypes,

With key_3 having the MultipleTypes enum and therefore able to hold multiple types thanks to the previously defined enum.
You could even handle null values by using Option like Option<MultipleTypes>.

For my use-case, the downside of this approach was that I would have to resolve the value on each usage.

So, there's another way:
You can create a custom deserializer for serde which can be used for the field related to multiple types. All the deserializer function does is handling and converting the different types into a single result type.

fn parse_value<'de, D>(deserializer: D) -> Result<Option<Vec<String>>, D::Error>
        D: Deserializer<'de>,
    enum AnyType<'a> {
        Str(&'a str),

    Ok(match AnyType::deserialize(deserializer)? {
        AnyType::Str(v) => Some(vec![v.to_string()]),
        AnyType::U64(v) => Some(vec![v.to_string()]),
        AnyType::Vec(v) => Some(v),
        AnyType::Bool(v) => Some(vec![v.to_string()]),
        AnyType::None => None,

This is similar to the first approach with the main difference that we're converting all the values into a vector of strings. Since I didn't need the real types here, it was the best option at the time.
The code for using the custom deserialization function in a struct looks like that:

#[derive(Debug, Serialize, Deserialize)]
struct MultiStruct {
    key_1: i32,
    key_2: bool,
    key_3: Option<Vec<String>>,

Now, accessing it in your code needs resolving the Option first, i.e. like:

let value = field.value.to_owned();
let current_value = match value {
    Some(value) => value,
    None => continue,

// now do sth. with the first element
let val = current_value[0].clone();

And that's about it. What's your experience with type conversion in Rust?

Attribution: Article image by Ulrike Leone from Pixabay