Building Messages in Blend for Visual Studio

The other day Martin Zikmond tweeted about a messaging sample app he’d built using the Uno Platform, allowing the same app to run on iOS, Android, Windows, MacOS and Web. Whilst the concept was simple enough, the point was that there was almost no platform specific code and yet the app works and looks virtually the same on every platform.

Following my previous post where I did a walk through of some of the Blend for Visual Studio features I use, I thought I’d take the challenge to see how much of Martin’s app I could build using the designer in Blend. The good news is that you can get a long way; The bad news is that there are some features, such as ThemeResources, that seem to cause some issues with the designer – we’ll see this towards the end of the post.

New Project

Ok, so this is pretty self explanatory but Blend has a similar New Project experience to what you see in Visual Studio. Start by searching for the type of project you want to build. So that the designer works, we’re going to select a Blank App (Universal Windows). Once we’ve completed the design work we can copy the files across into our Uno project

Note: At the moment there’s no support for Shared Projects, which the default Uno solution is setup to use. If you follow my post on using multi-targeting with Uno you can use the designer if you load the Windows solution filter.

Give your project a name and location you want it saved.

At this point I typically make sure the application runs and that I’ve upgraded various NuGet packages. Next I’m going to copy in a bunch of the code files from Martin’s project that is available on GitHub. This includes the ViewModels, the SampleData and a couple of Assets.

In the code behind for the MainPage (MainPage.xaml.cs) I’ve added a ViewModel property that returns an instance of the MainViewModel. This will be used to provide both runtime and design time data.

Now let’s get to the designer. From the Assets tool window, search for “split” and drag the SplitView onto the design surface. The SplitView has a Pane, the collapsable panel that shows/hides when you tab the burger menu, and a main Content area. In Martin’s app the list of conversations is in the Pane, whilst the Messages for the selected conversation appear in the Content area.

I wanted to reuse the same color resources that Martin has, so I copied the contents of the App.xaml across to my project – It would be awesome if Microsoft could add back support for managing project resources, which was previously a feature of Blend but got lost in the update to the designer a couple of years ago.

Back to the designer and focus on the SplitView. From the Properties tool window locate the PaneBackground property. Select the Color Resources tab (yeh, Editor and Color Resources are a tab, not that it’s very obvious) and select the NavPaneBackgroundColor (this comes from the resources we added to App.xaml). Whilst we’re here, set the BackgroundSource property to HostBackdrop and TintOpacity to 50%. Check out the docs on Acrylic material for more information on using Windows specific brushes. This is one point where Martin has provided a different background for Windows versus the other platforms – check out the source code to see how he’s done this using platform namespaces.

When you launch the app on Windows you can see the effect of setting the Acrylic background on the pane of the splitview (left side of this image).

Next we’re going to set the Padding on the Grid located inside the Pane, which will inset the list of conversations away from the edge. Rather than just setting the Padding, which can be done using the Properties tool window, I’m going to convert this into a reusable resource. Click the square to the right of the property to display the context menu, then select Convert to New Resource.

Give the resource a name and specify where you want the resource to be saved.

In this case I’m going to go ahead and create a new Resource dictionary by clicking the New… button. Since we’ll use this resource dictionary for styles, templates and other resources, I’ve named it accordingly. When you click the Add button, not only does this resource dictionary get added to your project, it is also wired up as a merge dictionary in App.xaml.

Next we’re going to add a ListView to the Pane to display the list of conversations. Again from the Assets window, drag the ListView across onto the Pane in the designer.

Unfortunately there’s no designer support for working with x:Bind. However, you will get intellisense in the XAML editor to let you know what properties are available for binding to.

Despite setting the ItemsSource property, the ListView still remains empty on the designer – as I mentioned, no designer support for x:Bind. However, with the recently introduced design time data everywhere support that’s been added, you can take advantage of regular data binding at design time.

Firstly, we’ll add an instance of the MainViewModel as design time resource. Note that this is the same as adding normal resources, just with the “d:” prefix. However, be aware that setting attributes at design time will override any runtime values whilst in the designer. This normally isn’t an issue but when specifying resources, it will only pick up the design time resources, rather than attempting to combine the resource dictionaries.

        <MainViewModel x:Key="DesignViewModel" />

Note that the XAML editor is able to assist with applying namespaces etc. After adding the MainViewModel resource I get a prompt helping me to setup and use the namespace.

Next, set the ItemsSource property on the ListView, again using the design time prefix (i.e. d:ItemsSource=”{Binding Conversations}” ). Now we should start to see items appear in the ListView.

Let’s go ahead and create a data template for determining how each item will appear. Right-click on the ListView and select Edit Additional Templates, Edit Generated Items (ItemTemplate), followed by Create Empty. Give the DataTemplate a name and specify where you want to save it.

Rather than going through each element in the item template, I’m going to add the DataTemplate from Martin’s code. However, even after adding this data template, there’s no items appearing in the ListView. Again, this is because there’s no designer support for x:Bind. Luckily we can do the same trick, this time for each property we want to data bind. in this example we’re using the design time data binding for the Text property on the TextBlock

Ok, so now we’re starting to look good.

However, notice how the time is appearing at different positions for each item in the list. This is because the list item isn’t spanning the full width of the ListView. I’ve never understood why this is the default behaviour but it dates back as long as I can remember. Luckily there’s an easy fix, which is to set the HorizontalContentAlignment on the ListView to Stretch. However, this needs to be done on the ItemContainerStyle for the ListView. Right-click on the ListView, Edit Additional Templates and then this time select Edit Generated Item Container (ItemContainerStyle), followed by Create Empty.

Give the template a name and location for saving.

From the Properties tool window, search for “horizon” and change the HorizontalContentAlignment to Stretch (far right icon).

Now, the list of conversations is looking much better.

In the main Content area, lets start by creating three rows to host the header, messages and input TextBox. Using the mouse, you can draw the grid rows, and then use the designer to define the height for the rows. The first and third row should both be set to Auto, with the second row set to *.

Let’s add the input TextBox at the bottom of the screen. Click on the chevrons on the left edge of the design to expand out the Assets flyout. Search for textbox and double-click on the TextBox to add it to the designer.

Next, right-click on the newly created TextBox and select Layout, Reset All.

Depending on where the TextBox was added, you’ll probably have to set the Grid.Row to 2 in order for it to appear in the third row. Whilst in the Properties tool window, let’s set the CornerRadius to 12 and the Margin to 20 – again, I would typically extract these to resources so they can be reused across the app (similar to CSS classes if you’re more familiar with styling for the web).

At this point I’m going to grab the rest of the XAML for the Content area from Martin’s source code, rather than walking you through adding each of the controls. There was one exception to this – in Martin’s code he has used an ItemTemplateSelector to switch between two different item templates based on whether the message is from the current user or not. I’m going to take a different approach, so I’ve replaced the ItemTemplateSelector with just a single ItemTemplate. The resulting messages list looks like the following, where it’s no longer possible to distinguish who sent which message.

To fix this issue we’re going to use converters that take a bool value and determine what value to return. The first converter returns a HorizontalAlignment, either Left or Right, depending on the input value. I’ve set it to return Stretch if the input value isn’t a bool, effectively making it the default value.

Next we’re going to make use of this converter in the item template. Here we’ve selected the Border element and are about to click the Create Data Binding menu item.

In the Create Data Binding window, we select the IsFrom property, and then at the bottom of the window, select the BoolHorizontalAlignmentConverter.

If you run the app at this point you’ll see that the messages are aligned left and right according to who sent the message but there’s no difference in style. We can do the same process but this time for setting the Style of different elements in the template; this time using a BoolStyleConverter.

The difference with the BoolStyleConverter is that it needs a TrueStyle and FalseStyle to be defined. For example for the Border we can create two styles and then an instance of the BoolStyleConverter.

And the same for the TextBlock style

And then we apply these to the item template.

And voila, we have a similar layout to what Martin had

Ok, so just in conclusion there’s a couple of points:

  • Firstly, in the style for the Border and TextBlock it’s referencing a ThemeResource to set color. This is important so that you get support for light/dark mode. However, it also seems to break the designer support, resulting in no messages appearing on the screen. I think the resolution might be that the Styles themselves have to be defined as ThemeResources.
  • Secondly, you might be asking why I chose to use converters instead of an ItemTemplateSelector. The answer is that there isn’t any right or wrong answer, I just wanted to demonstrate a different way to appear the problem. In some cases the ItemTemplateSelector is preferred, particularly if there are massive differences between the templates. In this case, I would probably go with converters because you have a single ItemTemplate, so any changes you make will affect both From and To messages, without you having to remember to update both templates.

Hopefully you’ve seen how you can take advantage of Blend for Visual Studio to start building cross-platform experiences; start with Windows (UWP) and apply it to iOS, Android, MacOS and Web using the Uno Platform

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