XAML Control Templates for Windows (UWP) and Platform.Uno

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about using code to declare the user interface of an app. Such as a recent post I did following the announcement of SwiftUI by Apple. In the Xamarin.Forms world the hashtag CSharpForMarkup has become the latest distraction. CSharpForMarkup encourages developers to move away from XAML to defining their layouts using C#. Whilst I’m not against this, I do feel that we’re all discussing the wrong problem. Whether you use code or XAML to define your layouts, Xamarin.Forms suffers from being tied to the underlying platform controls. Renderers, Effects and Visual are all mechanisms to compensate for not having XAML control templates for every control (more on templates).

Enter Platform.Uno and their mission to take the XAML framework from Windows (UWP) and adapt it to other platforms. As an alternative for building apps for iOS and Android, Platform Uno was moderately interesting. With their push to support WebAssembly, Platform.Uno opens up a world of opportunities for building rich applications for the web. Their recent example of publishing the Windows calculator to the web (https://calculator.platform.uno) is just the the start for this technology.

In this post we’ll walk through how the XAML templating system works and how to go about defining a Control Template to customise the behaviour of controls.

Note: In this post I’ll be using XAML so that I can use Blend to assist with writing XAML. You can choose to use C# if you prefer defining your layouts in code. The point of this post is to highlight the templating capabilities of UWP and Platform.Uno.

Lookless or Templated Controls

One of the foundations of XAML was the notion of a templated, or lookless, control. In his post “What does it mean to be ‘lookless’?” Dave observes that a lookless control is one where the UI is declared in XAML and the behaviour or functionality of the control is defined in code. My view is that a lookless control is one where the functionality of the control isn’t tied to a specific design. By this I mean that each aspect of the control should be defined using a template, thus making it a templated control. A developer using the control should be able to adjust any of the templates without affecting the functionality of the control.

What is a Button?

Let’s look at what this means in practice by examining a Button. If I asked you what you thought a Button in UWP is, you’d probably answer by writing the following element:

<Button Content="Press Me!" />

All you’ve done is declared a Button with content that says “Press Me!” that uses the default Button styles. You haven’t actually answered the question. So let’s start with a simple definition of a button.

A Button is an element that responds to the user tapping or clicking by performing some action.

However, in the context of UWP where a Button is an actual control, this definition is a little too vague. For example, the following Border/TextBlock combination matches the definition

<Border Background="Gray" Tapped="PressMeTapped">
    <TextBlock Text="Press Me!"/>
</Border>

Tapping on the Border does invoke the PressMeTapped event handler but is that all we mean when we say a Button. I would argue that one of the significant aspects to a Button is that it gives some visual cues to the user. By this I mean that when the user hovers their mouse over a button they can the mouse pointer changes, or the Button adjusts how it looks. Similarly, when the user taps or clicks on the Button they should get some visual feedback confirming their action. This feedback is what separates a Button from just simply a tap or click event handler that can be attached to any element.

What we’ve just observed is that the Button has a number of different visual states. In the context of a UWP button these are the Normal, PointerOver and Pressed states. Using the default Button style in the Light theme, these states are shown in the following image.

States in the Control Template for the UWP Button
UWP Button States

As part of extending our definition of a Button I was careful not to define what feedback, or change to layout, should be used for each state of the Button. UWP ships with Dark and Light themes and a set of default control styles that combine to give you the states shown above. However, the important thing to remember is that the visual appearance isn’t what defines a Button. Perhaps an updated definition might be something like:

A Button is an element that responds to the user tapping or clicking by performing some action. It has Normal, PointerOver, Pressed and Disabled visual states that can provide feedback and guide the user on how to interact with the control.

Content v Text Properties

Xamarin.Forms deviates from most other XAML platforms when it comes to defining elements and attributes. For example, instead of using a StackPanel, Xamarin.Forms has a StackLayout. Not only are they named differently, they also exhibit different behaviour. Similarly, the Button control has a Text property instead of a Content property. Whilst this might seem like a decision to simplify the Button control it highlights the limitation of Xamarin.Forms due to the lack of templating.

Let’s back up for a second and take a look at the Content property. In a lot of cases you might simply set the Content attribute to a string, such as the earlier example where I set the Content to “Press Me!”. However, to override the styling of the text, or add other content to the Button, I can set the Content property explicitly.

<Button>
    <StackPanel>
        <TextBlock Style="{StaticResource HeaderTextBlockStyle}"
                   Text="Press Me!" />
        <TextBlock Style="{StaticResource BodyTextBlockStyle}"
                   Text="or.... perhaps not" />
    </StackPanel>
</Button>

Note: As the Content property on the Button is annotated with the ContentPropertyAttribute, we don’t need to wrap the StackPanel in Button.Content tags.

Even though I’ve changed the content of the Button, I haven’t in anyway changed the way the Button functions. In fact, in this case I haven’t even changed how the Button changes appearance for the different states.

Using a Content Template

Before we get into customising the different Button states I just wanted to touch on the use of content templates. In the previous example I showed how the Content of the Button could be set to any arbitrary XAML. What happens if I want to reuse the content layout but just with different text? This is where the ContentTemplate property is useful.

The ContentTemplate property expects a DataTemplate which will be used to define the layout for the Content. At runtime the DataContext of the ContentTemplate will be set to the value of the Content property. Let’s see this in practice by moving the XAML from the Content property into the ContentTemplate.

<Button>
  <Button.Content>
    <local:ButtonData Heading="Press Me!" SubText="or.... perhaps not" />
  </Button.Content>
  <Button.ContentTemplate>
    <DataTemplate>
      <StackPanel>
        <TextBlock Style="{StaticResource HeaderTextBlockStyle}"
                   Text="{Binding Heading}" />
        <TextBlock Style="{StaticResource BodyTextBlockStyle}"
                   Text="{Binding SubText}" />
      </StackPanel>
    </DataTemplate>
  </Button.ContentTemplate>
</Button>

In this code block you can see that the Content property has been set to a new instance of the ButtonData class. The two TextBlock elements are subsequently data bound to the Heading and SubText properties.

public class ButtonData
{
    public string Heading { get; set; }

    public string SubText { get; set; }
}

What this shows is that we’ve separated the data (i.e. the instance of the ButtonData class) from the presentation (i.e. the DataTemplate that is specified for the ContentTemplate property). Now if we wanted to reuse the DataTemplate across multiple elements we can extract it as a StaticResource. The following code illustrates extracting the DataTemplate to a StaticResource, as well as updating the data binding syntax. The x:Bind syntax gives us strongly typed data binding. Meaning we get intellisense and better runtime performance as there are no reflection calls. Button1 and Button2 are properties on the page that return instances of the ButtonData class.

<Page.Resources>
    <DataTemplate x:Key="MyButtonTemplate"
                  x:DataType="local:ButtonData">
        <StackPanel>
            <TextBlock Style="{StaticResource HeaderTextBlockStyle}"
                       Text="{x:Bind Heading}" />
            <TextBlock Style="{StaticResource BodyTextBlockStyle}"
                       Text="{x:Bind SubText}" />
        </StackPanel>
    </DataTemplate>
</Page.Resources>
<Button Content="{x:Bind Button1}"
        ContentTemplate="{StaticResource MyButtonTemplate}" />
<Button Content="{x:Bind Button2}"
        ContentTemplate="{StaticResource MyButtonTemplate}" />

Custom Control Templates

So far we’ve seen how the Button control supports arbitrary Content and the use of ContentTemplates to reuse layouts across multiple controls. Neither of these can be used to adjust the visual appearance of the different Button states. In this section we’re going to start by looking at what properties you can adjust to tweak the existing states. We’ll then bust out Blend and start messing with the way a Button looks. All of this will be done without changing the functionality of the Button.

ThemeResources in the Control Template

In the previous section I added some arbitrary XAML to the Content of the Button. However, when I run the application I still see the default background gray. The background of the Button control is part of the default Template for the control. We’ll delve into this in a little more detail in the next sections. For the time being we’re going to adjust the colour of the background and round the corners on the border.

Adjusting the background of the Button when it’s in the Normal state can be done two ways. You can either specify the Background on the Button element itself, or you can override the ButtonBackground resource with the colour of your choosing.

<Page.Resources>
    <Color x:Key="ButtonBackground">DarkGreen</Color>
</Page.Resources>

<Button Content="{x:Bind Button1}"
        Background="Blue"
        ContentTemplate="{StaticResource MyButtonTemplate}" />
<Button Width="200"
        Height="200"
        HorizontalAlignment="Center"
        Content="{x:Bind Button2}"
        ContentTemplate="{StaticResource MyButtonTemplate}" />

At this point if you run the application up on UWP you’ll see that the initial colours for the two Button elements are blue and dark green respectivey. However, if you move the mouse over each of them you’ll see that they switch back to a grey background. This is because we’ve only adjusted the colour used to set the initial background colour. To adjust the colour for the PointerOver and Pressed states we need to adjust the appropriate resources, which are aptly called ButtonBackgroundPressed and ButtonBackgroundPressed. A full list of the overridable colours is available in the documentation for the Button control. Alternatively you can find the entire list of built in color resources in the ThemeResources.xaml file (more information here).

Button Colors in ThemeResources.xaml

In addition to changing the background colour, we also wanted to round the corners of the border that appears around the control when the user moves the mouse in closer. This can be done by simply setting the CornerRadius property to 10 on the Button element.

When we get to talking about visual states we’ll go through how properties on the Button control are modified with each visual state.

Changing the Control Template Layout

Sometimes it’s necessary to make changes that can’t be achieved by either setting the ContentTemplate or overriding the default colour resources. For example, say you wanted to add the Built to Roam logo as a watermark behind the content of the Button. To do this we need to override the Template for the Button. For this I’m going to use Blend as it’s particularly good at edit templates.

To begin editing the control template, locate the Button in the Objects and Timelines window. Right-click on the [Button] and select Edit Template, followed by Edit a Copy.

Editing a Copy of the Default Button Template

Next, you’ll be prompted to give the new template a name and specify where you want the template to be defined. When the new template is created it will include the default Button Template, thus allowing you to customise it. In this case the WatermarkButtonTemplate will be defined in the current document, limiting its availability to just the Button elements on the page.

Naming the New Control Template

Note: In this example we’re copying the default Button template. However, what gets copied into the XAML is actually the entire default Button style. This includes all the default property setters. The value of the Template property is set to a new instance of a ControlTemplate.

I’m not going to go through the changes to the template in detail but the summary is:

  • Wrap the ContentPresenter in a Grid called ContentFrame
  • Move Background, BackgroundSizing, BorderBrush, BorderThickness and CornerRadius from the ContentPresenter to ContentFrame
  • Adjust Visual States so that they reference ContentFrame for border and background properties. Leave any references to Foreground targetting the ContentPresenter element.
  • Add an Image inside the Grid with Source set to an image added to the Assets folder.
  • Set Opacity to 20% (0.2) and Stretch to Uniform on the Image.

Before:

<ControlTemplate TargetType="Button">
    <ContentPresenter
        x:Name="ContentPresenter"
        Padding="{TemplateBinding Padding}"
        HorizontalContentAlignment="{TemplateBinding HorizontalContentAlignment}"
        VerticalContentAlignment="{TemplateBinding VerticalContentAlignment}"
        AutomationProperties.AccessibilityView="Raw"
        Background="{TemplateBinding Background}"
        BackgroundSizing="{TemplateBinding BackgroundSizing}"
        BorderBrush="{TemplateBinding BorderBrush}"
        BorderThickness="{TemplateBinding BorderThickness}"
        Content="{TemplateBinding Content}"
        ContentTemplate="{TemplateBinding ContentTemplate}"
        ContentTransitions="{TemplateBinding ContentTransitions}"
        CornerRadius="{TemplateBinding CornerRadius}">
        <VisualStateManager.VisualStateGroups>                
        ...
        </VisualStateManager.VisualStateGroups>
    </ContentPresenter>
</ControlTemplate>

After:

<ControlTemplate TargetType="Button">
    <Grid
        x:Name="ContentFrame"
        Padding="{TemplateBinding Padding}"
        Background="{TemplateBinding Background}"
        BackgroundSizing="{TemplateBinding BackgroundSizing}"
        BorderBrush="{TemplateBinding BorderBrush}"
        BorderThickness="{TemplateBinding BorderThickness}"
        CornerRadius="{TemplateBinding CornerRadius}">
        <Image
            Opacity="0.2"
            Source="Assets/BuiltToRoamLogo.png"
            Stretch="Uniform" />
        <ContentPresenter
            x:Name="ContentPresenter"
            HorizontalContentAlignment="{TemplateBinding HorizontalContentAlignment}"
            VerticalContentAlignment="{TemplateBinding VerticalContentAlignment}"
            AutomationProperties.AccessibilityView="Raw"
            Content="{TemplateBinding Content}"
            ContentTemplate="{TemplateBinding ContentTemplate}"
            ContentTransitions="{TemplateBinding ContentTransitions}"
            FontFamily="Segoe UI" />
        <VisualStateManager.VisualStateGroups>
        ...
        </VisualStateManager.VisualStateGroups>
    </Grid>
</ControlTemplate>

The net result is that the image is displayed on top of the background colour (which is set on the parent Grid) but beneath the content.

The important thing about defining this ControlTemplate is that it can be reused on any Button, irrespective of the Content that is being displayed. Again, these changes have affected the design of the Button but we still haven’t modified what happens when the user interacts with the Button.

Tweaking Control Template Visual States

The last set of changes we’re going to look at is how we modify the behaviour of the Button when the user does interact with it. In this case we’re going to look at the Pressed state. We’re going to change the default behaviour to slightly enlarge the Button when it’s in the Pressed state. To do this we need to modify the Pressed VisualState that is defined inside the ControlTemplate.

Using Blend we’ll step through adjusting the Pressed Visual State to expand the Button to 150% of it’s original size (i.e. a scale of 1.5 in both X and Y directions). To get started in the Objects and Timeline window, right click the Button element and select Edit Template, then Edit Current. This is similar to what we did previously but this time we already have a ControlTemplate in the XAML for the page.

Edit an Existing Control Template

Next, from the States window, select the Pressed state. If you click where the word Pressed is written you should see both the focus border around the Pressed state and a red dot appear alongside, indicating that Blend is in recording mode. You should also see a red border appear around the main design surface. If you look at the Button on the design surface it should appear like it’s been Pressed to illustrate what the Pressed state looks like.

Switching to the Pressed state

In the Properties window, locate the Transform section. Select the third icon in, which is for adjusting the Scale of the element. Set both X and Y values to 1.5. You should see a white square alongside each of the values indicating that you’ve explicitly set the value.

Adjusting the Scale Transform for X and Y

If you go back to the Objects and Timeline window you should see that under the ContentFrame there are entries for RenderTransform/ScaleX and RenderTransform/ScaleY to indicate that these properties have been modified for the currently selected visual state.

Visual State Properties

If you run the application now and click on the Button you should see that whilst the mouse button is depressed the Button moves to the Pressed state which shows the Button enlarged.

Enlarged Pressed State for Button

If you examine the change to the XAML, what you’ll see is that two Setters were added to the Pressed Visual State.

<VisualState x:Name="Pressed">
    <VisualState.Setters>
        <Setter Target="ContentFrame.(UIElement.RenderTransform).(CompositeTransform.TranslateX)" Value="1.5" />
        <Setter Target="ContentFrame.(UIElement.RenderTransform).(CompositeTransform.TranslateY)" Value="1.5" />
    </VisualState.Setters>
    <Storyboard>
        ... other existing animations ...
    </Storyboard>
</VisualState>

Animating Content Template State Transitions

The change we just made to the Control Template was to change the Scale X and Scale Y properties for the Pressed state. However, this is rather a jarring experience as there’s no transition or animation defined. The final step in this process is to add a transition both too and from the Pressed state.

In the States window, click the arrow with a plus sign and select the first item (i.e. *=>Pressed) to add a transition that will be invoked whenever the Button goes to the Pressed state, regardless of the initial state.

Adding Transition into Pressed State

If you look in the Objects and Timeline window you can now see a timeline that will define what animations are run during the transition.

Start of the Transition Timeline

Over in the Properties window, locate the Transform section and click on the empty square alongside the X property. Select Convert to Local Value, which will set the value to 1. The square will now appear as a sold white square. Repeat for Scale Y

Setting the Start of the Transition

Back in the Objects and Timeline window you should now see a keyframe marker appear at time 0. Drag the vertical orange line to 0.5 seconds.

End of Transition in Timeline

Now in the Properties window set the Scale X and Scale Y to 1.5, which is the end values for the transition. Thisshould match the values previously set for the Pressed state.

End Transition Values

Repeat this process for a transition for leaving the Pressed state. The transition should be the reverse with the Scale X and Y starting at 1.5 and ending at 1.

Transitions In and Out of Pressed State

And there you have it, an animated Pressed state.

Animated Pressed State in Control Template

The final XAML for the Transitions includes two Storyboards that defines the transition to and from the Pressed state.

<VisualStateGroup.Transitions>
    <VisualTransition GeneratedDuration="00:00:00"
                      To="Pressed">
        <Storyboard>
            <DoubleAnimationUsingKeyFrames Storyboard.TargetName="ContentFrame"
                                           Storyboard.TargetProperty="(UIElement.RenderTransform).(CompositeTransform.ScaleX)">
                <EasingDoubleKeyFrame KeyTime="00:00:00"
                                      Value="1" />
                <EasingDoubleKeyFrame KeyTime="00:00:00.5000000"
                                      Value="1.5" />
            </DoubleAnimationUsingKeyFrames>
            <DoubleAnimationUsingKeyFrames Storyboard.TargetName="ContentFrame"
                                           Storyboard.TargetProperty="(UIElement.RenderTransform).(CompositeTransform.ScaleY)">
                <EasingDoubleKeyFrame KeyTime="00:00:00"
                                      Value="1" />
                <EasingDoubleKeyFrame KeyTime="00:00:00.5000000"
                                      Value="1.5" />
            </DoubleAnimationUsingKeyFrames>
        </Storyboard>
    </VisualTransition>
    <VisualTransition GeneratedDuration="00:00:00"
                      From="Pressed">
        <Storyboard>
            <DoubleAnimationUsingKeyFrames Storyboard.TargetName="ContentFrame"
                                           Storyboard.TargetProperty="(UIElement.RenderTransform).(CompositeTransform.ScaleX)">
                <EasingDoubleKeyFrame KeyTime="00:00:00"
                                      Value="1.5" />
                <EasingDoubleKeyFrame KeyTime="00:00:00.5000000"
                                      Value="1" />
            </DoubleAnimationUsingKeyFrames>
            <DoubleAnimationUsingKeyFrames Storyboard.TargetName="ContentFrame"
                                           Storyboard.TargetProperty="(UIElement.RenderTransform).(CompositeTransform.ScaleY)">
                <EasingDoubleKeyFrame KeyTime="00:00:00"
                                      Value="1.5" />
                <EasingDoubleKeyFrame KeyTime="00:00:00.5000000"
                                      Value="1" />
            </DoubleAnimationUsingKeyFrames>
        </Storyboard>
    </VisualTransition>
</VisualStateGroup.Transitions>

As you can see from this walkthrough, the XAML templating system is relatively sophisticated. It allows for multiple levels of configuration or tweaking in order to get it looking just right.

In coming posts I’ll be talking more about what differentiates XAML and why it’s still being used across Windows, Xamarin.Forms and of course Platform Uno. If you’re looking for cross platform solutions, please don’t hesitate to contact me or anyone on the team at Built to Roam.

Visual State Manager Tooling in Xamarin.Forms With BuildIt.States

Visual State Manager Tooling in Xamarin.Forms With BuildIt.States

Back in the days of Silverlight/Windows Phone Microsoft launched a tool called Expression Blend that allowed developers and designer to work in harmony with developers doing their thing (ie write code) in Visual Studio and designers creating the user experience in XAML using Expression Blend. Fast forward a few years and Expression Blend has been rebadged to Blend for Visual Studio and most of the features of Blend have now been migrated to Visual Studio. With the demise of Windows Phone and the lack of developer interest in building for just Windows, Blend is now a tool that most developers have all but forgotten. So, why am I bringing this up now? Well, one of the features I missed from Blend is the ability to have design time data that allows you to build out the entire user interface, with the design time data being replace by real data when the application is run. Whilst there have been some attempts at providing a design time experience for Xamain/Xamarin.Forms, the reality is that it comes no where close to what Blend was able to do in its heyday.

If we look at other platforms, such as React Native, there has been a shift away from design time experience, across to an interactive runtime experience. By this I mean the ability to adjust layout and logic of the application whilst it’s running, which relies on the platform being able to hot-reload both layout and logic of the application. There are some third party tools for Xamarin.Forms that partially enable this functionality.

One of the challenges I found when working with Visual States is that you often need to get the application to a certain point, or follow a particular sequence of steps in order to get a specific Visual State to appear. Take the example I provided in my previous post on page states where I provided DataLoaded and DataFailedToLoad states – in the example the appearance of these states was completely random, so you might have to click the button a couple of times in order to get the state to appear. Luckily, the BuildIt.Forms library has a slightly-hidden feature that allows you to manually switch between states. I say it’s slightly-hidden because if you connect your Visual States to a StateManager in your ViewModels (shown in either this post or this post) you’ll see this feature automatically. In the example I covered in my previous post I needed to add the following line to the end of the MainPage constructor:

public MainPage()
{
     InitializeComponent();
    var groups = VisualStateManager.GetVisualStateGroups(this);
}

Now, when I run the application I see a small dot appear in the bottom left of the screen.

image

Clicking on the dot reveals a flyout that allows you to switch states:

App14UWP20190317125937

Note that this is only shown when the Visual Studio debugger is attached so will not impact the way your application works in release mode.

Blend Still Lives

Blend Still Lives

I was surprised when editing the XAML of a UWP project that I saw a prompt to open the page in Blend – I’d all but forgotten that Blend exists.

image

On launching Blend I noticed the fancy new splash screen but is the only thing that’s been worked on? Well I currently don’t use Blend, even for UWP development, so I’m not sure why this product even exists, considering most of its features are covered by the new tool windows in Visual Studio.

I did notice that when editing the UWP page, there was at least support for Visual States. Back in its prime, Blend led the way with developer-designer engagement. Now with hot reload support in most major frameworks, the reliance on a design time experience as all but gone away. I think it’s time to say RIP to Blend and move forward with a different approach to XAML developers.