Windows (UWP) Designer in Visual Studio and Blend for Visual Studio

If you’ve been looking at the release notes for the Visual Studio previews, you’ll have noted that there’s some work being done on the XAML designer that now supports both WPF and UWP. I figured I would take this opportunity to go through and document some of the features that I use and some of … Continue reading “Windows (UWP) Designer in Visual Studio and Blend for Visual Studio”

If you’ve been looking at the release notes for the Visual Studio previews, you’ll have noted that there’s some work being done on the XAML designer that now supports both WPF and UWP. I figured I would take this opportunity to go through and document some of the features that I use and some of the new features that have appeared in the previews. Note that this isn’t an exhaustive list by any means – would love feedback on what other features you use and what you think is missing in the designer.

One of the reasons that the designer experience in Visual Studio and Blend is so relevant is that you can take the design you’ve done for your Windows app and port it across to iOS, Android, MacOS and even the web (using Web Assembly). All these platforms are available via the Uno platform – If you’re new to the Uno Platform, head over to https://platform.uno/ and get started with building cross-platform mobile, desktop and Web applications.

New Project

Ok, so let’s start by creating ourselves a new Windows (UWP) project based on the Blank App (Universal Windows) template.

As usual, give the project a name to get started – you’ll be prompted to pick which target and minimum versions of Windows you want but for the purpose of this post I just went with the defaults.

Visual Studio Designer

Once created, depending on your setup of Visual Studio, you’ll probably have the MainPage.xaml already open. If not, find MainPage.xaml in the Solution Explorer tool window and double-click it to open it. Here you can see that I have the Toolbox on the left of the design surface and the Properties window, above the Solution Explorer, on the right side. I find this layout works well for working with the designer but you can easily customise the layout of the tool windows to suit how you work.

Design in Blend

We’re actually going to switch across to Blend for Visual Studio for the rest of this post. I prefer to do any designer work in Blend because I prefer to have the tool windows in a different position when doing design work, than when writing code. Switching between Visual Studio and Blend also gives me a mental switch to go between designer mode (well at least “layout-oriented work” mode, since I’m clearly not a designer) and developer mode.

It’s worth noting that the designer experience in Visual Studio and Blend is very similar – Microsoft made the decision years ago to build a consistent experience with the majority of functionality now available in both tools. Blend still retains a number of designer oriented features, such as creating visual states and animations with storyboards, that haven’t been exposed in the Visual Studio designer.

You can easily switch to Blend by right-clicking on the project or a XAML file in Solution Explorer and selecting Design in Blend.

As you can see the tool windows are labeled slightly differently in Blend and have a different default position. Again, feel free to reposition them to suit how you work.

Zoom

If you look at the main design surface, you’ll note that the initial position of the MainPage is very small. Working at this zoom level will be quite hard as each of the elements will be small and hard to manipulate.

In the bottom left corner of the design surface there’s a series of icon buttons and a dropdown. Expanding the dropdown allows you to select from a number of predefined zoom levels.

Alternatively you can select Fit all, or Fit selection, in order to bring the whole page into view.

The other way that you can control the positioning of the design area is using the mouse:

  • Scroll up/down – Two-finger drag on touch pad, or scroll wheel on mouse
  • Scroll left/right – Hold Shift + Two-finger drag on touch pad, or scroll wheel on mouse
  • Zoom in/out – Hold Ctrl + Two-finger drag on touch pad, or scroll wheel on mouse

Adding Controls with Assets Tool Window

Let’s start to add some controls to the page. We’ll use the Assets tool window to locate the TextBlock control using the search function.

If I just click and drag the TextBlock onto the design surface, Blend will add the control where I drop it.

Objects and Timeline Tool Window

If we take a look at the XAML you’ll note that a very arbitrary margin has been set on the TextBlock

Layout – Reset All

Right-click on the TextBlock in the Objects and Timelines tool window and select Reset All from the Layout menu.

Now the TextBlock has been reposition to take up the whole page.

However because text flows from the top-left, the word TextBlock is in the top left corner of the page.

Edit Style – Apply Resource

Next, let’s increase the size of the text. Instead of manually setting FontSize, we’re going to make use of one of the existing TextBlock styles. Right-click on the TextBlock again in the Objects and Timeline window and select Edit Style, Apply Resource and then we’ll select HeaderTextBockStyle. You can read more about predefined styles and the use of typography here.

This gives our TextBlock a nice size, without hard coding font sizes and styles randomly throughout the application.

Design Surface

Up to now I haven’t given you much context for this app – we’re going to build a simple interface that shows a list of contacts. The TextBlock we’ve added so far will act as a header/title for the page, and then beneath it we’ll need a ListView showing the list of our contacts.

Drawing Grid Rows

Before we can add the ListView, let’s create two rows in the Grid that the TextBlock is sitting in. Select the Grid in the Objects and Timelines window and then on the design surface, if you move the mouse cursor near the edge of the page, you’ll see the cursor change to one that’s got a small plus sign on it. Clicking at this position will add a row to the Grid.

Once added, you can then adjust the sizing of the row. In this scenario we’re going to change the row from 33* to being Auto, which will mean the row will be sized based on the height of the TextBlock.

Reset Grid.RowSpan in Properties Tool Window

One thing you may notice is that after adjusting the row size, the row seems to disappear. This is because in creating the row, Blend decided that the TextBlock was going to span both rows. To fix this, we can change the RowSpan on the TextBlock from 2 to 1 using the Properties tool window.

In this case, we’re going to select the Reset option, rather than setting it explicitly to 1. This will mean one fewer attributes in XAML that needs to be parsed.

Assets Button

Next up, we’re going to add the ListView to the second row. This time, instead of going all the way to the Assets tool window, we’re going to use the dropdown from the chevrons on the top left of the designer. This allows us to easily search and add controls, without having to open the tool windows – when doing a lot of design work I will often hide the tool windows (or even detach them and put them on a different monitor), so not having to open the tool windows to find a control is quite handy.

Runtime Toolbar

After dragging the ListView onto the page and making sure it’s sitting in the second row, I’m going to run the application to see what it looks like. Note that despite me not doing anything, the color of the title bar has aligned with my Windows theme (and yes, it’s pink because I’m using the setting where the theme is derived off the background I have set, which in turn is changed daily using the Dynamic Theme app).

Hot Reload

You’ll also note at the top of the window there is a toolbar that’s been added whilst I’m debugging the application. This toolbar has been available for a while but the Hot Reload indicator is a new addition. Hot Reload allows you to make changes to your XAML and for it to immediately take effect on the page when you save the XAML file (Hot Reload can be configured via Options off the Tools menu).

Display Layout Adorners

I’m going to toggle the Display Layout Adorners button (immediately adjacent to the left of the Hot Reload green tick).

Select Element

Next I’m going to click on the Select Element button (second in from the left) and click on the open space immediately below the TextBlock. As you can see, this highlights the whole area in a light blue (the layout adorner) which is the ListView.

Go to Live Visual Tree

Next I can click on the Go to Live Visual Tree button (first from the left) which will switch back to Visual Studio with the focus being set on the appropriate node in the Live Visual Tree.

XAML Editor

You’ll also note that the corresponding code in the XAML editor has been selected. As I start to type in the XAML editor I get intellisense showing me what options I have.

I’ve gone ahead and set a simple data template for the ListView which will determine what’s displayed for each item in the list. In this case it’s just going to print the word “Hi” for each item.

XAML Highlighting

Note that as I move the cursor around the XAML editor, the matching pairs of XML tags are highlighted, making it easy to see start and end of the blocks of XAML.

DataContext for Data Binding

Currently, despite setting a data template, the ListView isn’t going to show any items because I haven’t connected it to any data. To allow me to continue to layout elements on the page I’ve created some mock, or fake, data.

public class FakeData
{
    public Contact[] Contacts { get; } = new[]
    {
        new Contact(){Name="Bob Jones",PhoneNumber="+1 442 002 3234", Photo="ms-appx:///Assets/Photos/p0.jpg"},
        new Contact(){Name="Jessica Phelps",PhoneNumber="+1 394 234 1235", Photo="ms-appx:///Assets/Photos/p1.jpg"},
        new Contact(){Name="Andrew Jenkins",PhoneNumber="+1 232 282 29321", Photo="ms-appx:///Assets/Photos/p2.jpg"},
        new Contact(){Name="Francis Davis",PhoneNumber="+1 92329 2923 923", Photo="ms-appx:///Assets/Photos/p3.jpg"},
        new Contact(){Name="Xavier Smith",PhoneNumber="+1 93483 3923423", Photo="ms-appx:///Assets/Photos/p4.jpg"},
        new Contact(){Name="Kevin Chow",PhoneNumber="+1 343 994 39342", Photo="ms-appx:///Assets/Photos/p5.jpg"},
        new Contact(){Name="Phil Stevenson",PhoneNumber="+1 885 367 44432", Photo="ms-appx:///Assets/Photos/p6.jpg"},
        new Contact(){Name="Heath Sales",PhoneNumber="+1 903 912 9392", Photo="ms-appx:///Assets/Photos/p7.jpg"},
        new Contact(){Name="Sarah Wright",PhoneNumber="+1 347 399 499234", Photo="ms-appx:///Assets/Photos/p8.jpg"},
        new Contact(){Name="Geoff Sans",PhoneNumber="+1 834 1232 01923", Photo="ms-appx:///Assets/Photos/p9.jpg"}
    };
}

I can go ahead and create an instance of the FakeData class as a Resource on the Page. This instance is then set as the DataContext for the root Grid element on the page (and subsequently the DataContext for all elements on the page).

The ItemsSource on the ListView is then data bound to the Contacts property on the FakeData instance. The running application updates immediately to show a list of “Hi” down the screen.

Hide the Runtime Toolbar

As we start to design the page, the toolbar at the top can often get in the way. If you click on the chevron on the right side of the toolbar, the first click will reduce the size of the Hot Reload indicator (removing the words Hot Reload). The second click will minimise the toolbar completely.

Let’s amend the data template for the list, this time data binding to the Name property.

The ListView is immediately looking better, showing the names of the people in the Contacts list.

Edit ListView Item Template

If your working in the designer there are a number of ways you can make changes to the data template for the list. In this example we’re using the dropdown at the top left corner of the design area. Clicking the down button, followed by Edit Additional Template, then Edit Current, then Edit Generated Items (ItemTemplate).

Objects and Timeline – Group Into

You’ll notice that the Objects and Timeline window updates to show the tree from the perspective of the data template. Right-clicking on the TextBlock I can select Group Into, followed by StackPanel, to wrap the TextBlock in a StackPanel.

TextBlock Button

Next, I can add a TextBlock to the newly created StackPanel but simply double-clicking the TextBlock button on the left of the design area.

XAML Suggested Actions

One of the newest additions to the designer is the XAML Suggested Actions. Anyone who’s worked in Word or Excel is familiar with the suggested actions toolbar that often appears to try to make more of the tools are accessible when you need them. in this case we can click on the lightbulb button to display an in-situ property editor.

In this case we’re going to click through to Create Data Binding.

Create Data Binding

From the Create Data Binding window we can traverse down to the PhoneNumber property on the Contact object.

Note that there’s a minor bug at this point because the data binding that’s created isn’t 100% accurate. Instead of data binding to the PhoneNumber property (eg {Binding PhontNumber}) the generated binding is with Contacts.PhoneNumber. Simply removing the “Contacts.” prefix is enough to get it to work.

Edit ColumnDefinitions

I’m going to follow a similar approach to before – select the StackPanel and group into a Grid. From the Properties tool window find the ColumnDefinitions.

Click the … to open the Collection Editor for the ColumnDefinitions. Here we’re going to limit the first column to 50 pixels and then leave the second column as *.

I’ve update the data template with the profile picture as an image. Simply add an Image control and follow the same process as before to setup data binding to the Photo property on the Contact.

WinUI – ProfilePicture Control

To improve the layout of the contacts I’m going to use the ProfilePicture control, which will ensure all the images are the same size.. Instead of using the built in control, I’m going to grab the ProfilePicture control from the WinUI toolkit. Using the nuget package manager, select the Microsoft.UI.Xaml package and install it.

Once you’ve added the nuget package, make sure you don’t ignore the readme file that’s displayed to remind you to include the appropriate runtime values.

We’re almost there, we just need to add the PersonProfile, which we can do by discovering it in the Assets window (even though its from a third party)

And so now we have all our contacts appearing.

Final Design

After applying some minor tweaks to the layout of the data set, we can have a nicer looking sample app.

Before I copied the final code to this post, I just wanted to format the XAML. From the Options window, you can configure how you want your XAML files to appear.

Then, once you have the formatting options the way you want them, you can invoke Format Document from the various places around the design surface.

Final XAML

And here’s the final source code

<Page xmlns="http://schemas.microsoft.com/winfx/2006/xaml/presentation"
      xmlns:x="http://schemas.microsoft.com/winfx/2006/xaml"
      xmlns:local="using:WindowsDesigner"
      xmlns:d="http://schemas.microsoft.com/expression/blend/2008"
      xmlns:mc="http://schemas.openxmlformats.org/markup-compatibility/2006"
      xmlns:Custom="using:Microsoft.UI.Xaml.Controls"
      x:Class="WindowsDesigner.MainPage"
      mc:Ignorable="d">
    <Page.Resources>
        <local:FakeData x:Key="DesignTimeData" />
    </Page.Resources>

    <Page.Background>
        <ThemeResource ResourceKey="ApplicationPageBackgroundThemeBrush" />
    </Page.Background>

    <Grid DataContext="{StaticResource DesignTimeData}">
        <Grid.RowDefinitions>
            <RowDefinition Height="Auto" />
            <RowDefinition />
        </Grid.RowDefinitions>
        <TextBlock Margin="16"
                   Text="Contacts"
                   TextWrapping="Wrap"
                   Style="{StaticResource HeaderTextBlockStyle}" />
        <ListView Grid.Row="1"
                  ItemsSource="{Binding Contacts}">
            <ListView.ItemTemplate>
                <DataTemplate>
                    <Grid Margin="8">
                        <Grid.ColumnDefinitions>
                            <ColumnDefinition Width="50" />
                            <ColumnDefinition />
                        </Grid.ColumnDefinitions>
                        <StackPanel Orientation="Vertical"
                                    Grid.Column="1"
                                    Margin="8"
                                    HorizontalAlignment="Center">
                            <TextBlock Text="{Binding Name}"
                                       Style="{StaticResource BaseTextBlockStyle}" />
                            <TextBlock Text="{Binding PhoneNumber}"
                                       Style="{StaticResource BodyTextBlockStyle}" />
                        </StackPanel>
                        <Custom:PersonPicture Width="50"
                                              Height="50"
                                              ProfilePicture="{Binding Photo}" />
                    </Grid>
                </DataTemplate>
            </ListView.ItemTemplate>
        </ListView>
    </Grid>
</Page>

And that’s it – hopefully you’ve learnt a bit more about how to use the XAML editor and the new designer features.

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