XAML custom panels overview

Applies to Windows and Windows Phone

A panel is an object that provides a layout behavior for child elements it contains, when the XAML layout system runs and your app UI is rendered. You can define custom panels for XAML layout by deriving a custom class from the Panel class. You provide behavior for your panel by overriding the MeasureOverride and ArrangeOverride, supplying logic that measures and arranges the child elements.

The Panel base class

To define a custom panel class, you can either derive from the Panel class directly, or derive from one of the practical panel classes that aren't sealed, such as Grid or StackPanel. It's easier to derive from Panel, because it can be difficult to work around the existing layout logic of a panel that already has layout behavior. Also, a panel with behavior might have existing properties that aren't relevant for your panel's layout features.

From Panel, your custom panel inherits these APIs:

  • The Children property.
  • The Background, ChildrenTransitions and IsItemsHost properties, and the dependency property identifiers. None of these properties are virtual so you don't typically override or replace them. You don't typically need these properties for custom panel scenarios, not even for reading values.
  • The layout override methods MeasureOverride and ArrangeOverride. These were originally defined by FrameworkElement. The base Panel class doesn't override these, but practical panels like Grid do have override implementations that are implemented as native code and are run by the system. Providing new (or additive) implementations for ArrangeOverride and MeasureOverride is the bulk of the effort you need to define a custom panel.
  • All the other APIs of FrameworkElement, UIElement and DependencyObject, such as Height, Visibility and so on. You sometimes reference values of these properties in your layout overrides, but they aren't virtual so you don't typically override or replace them.

This focus here is to describe XAML layout concepts, so you can consider all the possibilities for how a custom panel can and should behave in layout. If you'd rather jump right in and see an example custom panel implementation, see Quickstart: BoxPanel, an example custom panel implementation.

The Children property

The Children property is relevant to a custom panel because all classes derived from Panel use the Children property as the place to store their contained child elements in a collection. Children is designated as the XAML content property for the Panel class, and all classes derived from Panel can inherit the XAML content property behavior. If a property is designated the XAML content property, that means that XAML markup can omit a property element when specifying that property in markup, and the values are set as immediate markup children (the "content"). For example, if you derive a class named CustomPanel from Panel that defines no new behavior, you can still use this markup:


<local:CustomPanel>
  <Button Name="button1"/>
  <Button Name="button2"/>
</local:CustomPanel>

When a XAML parser reads this markup, Children is known to be the XAML content property for all Panel derived types, so the parser will add the two Button elements to the UIElementCollection value of the Children property. The XAML content property facilitates a streamlined parent-child relationships in the XAML markup for a UI definition. For more info on XAML content properties, and how collection properties are populated when XAML is parsed, see Basic XAML syntax guide.

The collection type that's maintaining the value of the Children property is the UIElementCollection class. UIElementCollection is a strongly typed collection that uses UIElement as its enforced item type. UIElement is a base type that's inherited by hundreds of practical UI element types, so the type enforcement here is deliberately loose. But it does enforce that you couldn't have a Brush as a direct child of a Panel, and it generally means that only elements that are expected to be visible in UI and participate in layout will be found as child elements in a Panel.

Typically a custom panel accepts any UIElement child element by a XAML definition, by simply using the characteristics of the Children property as-is. As an advanced scenario, you could support further type checking of child elements, when you iterate over the collection in your layout overrides.

Besides looping through the Children collection in the overrides, your panel logic might also be influenced by Children.Count. You might have logic that is allocating space at least partly based on the number of items, rather than desired sizes and the other characteristics of individual items.

Overriding the layout methods

The basic model for the layout override methods (MeasureOverride and ArrangeOverride) is that they should iterate through all the children and call each child element's specific layout method. The first layout cycle starts when the XAML layout system sets the visual for the root window. Because each parent invokes layout on its children, this propagates a call to layout methods to every possible UI element that is supposed to be part of a layout. In XAML layout, there are two stages: measure, then arrange.

You don't get any built-in layout method behavior for MeasureOverride and ArrangeOverride from the base Panel class. Items in Children won't automatically render as part of the XAML visual tree, at least not yet. It is up to you to make the items known to the layout process, by invoking layout methods on each of the items you find in Children through a layout pass within your MeasureOverride and ArrangeOverride implementations.

There's no reason to call base implementations in Windows Runtime layout overrides unless you have your own inheritance. The native methods for layout behavior (if they exist) run regardless, and not calling base implementation from overrides won't prevent the native behavior from happening.

During the measure pass, your layout logic queries each child element for its desired size, by calling the Measure method on that child element. Calling the Measure method establishes the value for the DesiredSize property. The MeasureOverride return value is the desired size for the panel itself.

During the arrange pass, the positions and sizes of child elements are determined in x-y space and the layout composition is prepared for rendering. Your code must call Arrange on each child element in Children so that the layout system detects that the element belongs in the layout. The Arrange call is a precursor to composition and rendering; it informs the layout system where that element goes, when the composition is submitted for rendering.

Many properties and values contribute to how the layout logic will work at runtime. A way to think about the layout process is that the elements with no children (generally the most deeply nested element in the UI) are the ones that can finalize measurements first. They don't have any dependencies on child elements that influence their desired size. They might have their own desired sizes, and these are size suggestions until the layout actually takes place. Then, the measure pass continues walking up the visual tree until the root element has its measurements and all the measurements can be finalized.

The candidate layout must fit within the current app window or else parts of the UI will be clipped. Panels often are the place where the clipping logic is determined. Panel logic can determine what size is available from within the MeasureOverride implementation, and may have to push the size restrictions onto the children and divide space amongst children so that everything fits as best it can. The result of layout is ideally something that uses various properties of all parts of the layout but still fits within the app window. That requires both a good implementation for layout logic of the panels, and also a judicious UI design on the part of any app code that builds a UI using that panel. No panel design is going to look good if the overall UI design includes more child elements than can possibly fit in the app.

A large part of what makes the layout system work is that any element that's based on FrameworkElement already has some of its own inherent behavior when acting as a child in a container. For example, there are several APIs of FrameworkElement that either inform layout behavior or are needed to make layout work at all. These include:

MeasureOverride

The MeasureOverride method has a return value that's used by the layout system as the starting DesiredSize for the panel itself, when the Measure method is called on the panel by its parent in layout. The logic choices within the method are just as important as what it returns, and the logic often influences what value is returned.

All MeasureOverride implementations should loop through Children, and call the Measure method on each child element. Calling the Measure method establishes the value for the DesiredSize property. This might inform how much space the panel itself needs, as well as how that space is divided among elements or sized for a particular child element.

Here's a very basic skeleton of a MeasureOverride method:


protected override Size MeasureOverride(Size availableSize)
{
    Size returnSize; //TODO might return availableSize, might do something else
     
    //loop through each Child, call Measure on each
    foreach (UIElement child in Children)
    {
        child.Measure(new Size()); // TODO determine how much space the panel allots for this child, that's what you pass to Measure
        Size childDesiredSize = child.DesiredSize; //TODO determine how the returned Size is influenced by each child's DesiredSize
        //TODO, logic if passed-in Size and net DesiredSize are different, does that matter?
    }
    return returnSize;
}

Elements often have a natural size by the time they're ready for layout. After the measure pass, the DesiredSize might indicates that natural size, if the availableSize you passed for Measure was smaller. If the natural size is larger than availableSize you passed for Measure, the DesiredSize is constrained to availableSize. That's how Measure's internal implementation behaves, and your layout overrides should take that behavior into account.

Some elements don't have natural size because they have Auto values for Height and Width. These elements use the full availableSize, because that's what an Auto value represents: size the element to the maximum available size, which the immediate layout parent communicates by calling Measure with availableSize. In practice, there's always some measurement that a UI is sized to (even if that's the top level window.) Eventually the measure pass resolves all the Auto values to parent constraints and all Auto value elements get real measurements (which you can get by checking ActualWidth and ActualHeight, after layout completes).

It's legal to pass a size to Measure that has at least one infinite dimension, to indicate that the panel can attempt to size itself to fit measurements of its content. Each child element being measured sets its DesiredSize value using its natural size. Then, during the arrange pass, the panel typically arranges using that size.

Text elements such as TextBlock have a calculated ActualWidth and ActualHeight based on their text string and text properties even if no Height or Width value is set, and these dimensions should be respected by your panel logic. Clipping text is a particularly bad UI experience.

Even if your implementation doesn't use the desired size measurements, it's best to call the Measure method on each child element, because there are internal and native behaviors that are triggered by Measure being called. For an element to participate in layout, each child element must have Measure called on it during the measure pass and the Arrange method called on it during the arrange pass. Calling these methods sets internal flags on the object and populates values (such as the DesiredSize property) that the system's layout logic needs when it builds the visual tree and renders the UI.

The MeasureOverride return value is based on the panel's logic interpreting the DesiredSize or other size considerations for each of the child elements in Children when Measure is called on them. What to do with DesiredSize values from children and how the MeasureOverride return value should use them is up to your own logic's interpretation. You don't typically add up the values without modification, because the input of MeasureOverride is often a fixed available size that's being suggested by the panel's parent. If you exceed that size, the panel itself might get clipped. You'd typically compare the total size of children to the panel's available size and make adjustments if necessary.

Tips and guidance

  • Ideally a custom panel should be suitable for being the first true visual in a UI composition, perhaps at a level immediately under Page, UserControl or another element that is the XAML page root. In MeasureOverride implementations, don't routinely return the input Size without examining the values. If the return Size has an Infinity value in it, this can throw exceptions in runtime layout logic. An Infinity value can come from the main app window, which is scrollable and therefore doesn't have a maximum height. Other scrollable content might have the same behavior.
  • Another common mistake in MeasureOverride implementations is to return a new default Size (values for height and width are 0). You might start with that value, and it might even be the correct value if your panel determines that none of the children should be rendered. But a default Size results in your panel not being sized correctly by its host. It requests no space in the UI, and therefore gets no space and doesn't render. All your panel code otherwise might be functioning fine but you still won't see your panel or contents thereof if it's being composed with zero height, zero width.
  • Within the overrides, avoid the temptation to cast child elements to FrameworkElement and use properties that are calculated as a result of layout, particularly ActualWidth and ActualHeight. For most common scenarios you can base the logic on the child's DesiredSize value and you won't need any of the Height or Width related properties of a child element. For specialized cases, where you know the type of element and have additional information, for example the natural size of an image file, you can use your element's specialized information because it's not a value that is actively being altered by layout systems. Including layout-calculated properties as part of layout logic substantially increases the risk of defining an unintentional layout loop. These loops cause a condition where a valid layout can't be created and the system can throw a LayoutCycleException if the loop is not recoverable.
  • Panels typically divide their available space between multiple child elements, although exactly how space is divided varies. For example, Grid implements layout logic that uses its RowDefinition and ColumnDefinition values to divide the space into the Grid cells, supporting both star-sizing and pixel values. If they're pixel values, the size available for each child is already known, so that's what is passed as input size for a grid-style Measure.
  • Panels themselves can introduce reserved space for padding between items. If you do this, make sure to expose the measurements as a property that's distinct from Margin or any Padding property.
  • Elements might have values for their ActualWidth and ActualHeight properties based on a previous layout pass. If values change, app UI code can put handlers for LayoutUpdated on elements if there's special logic to run, but panel logic typically doesn't need to check for changes with event handling. The layout system is already making the determinations of when to re-run layout because a layout-relevant property changed value, and a panel's MeasureOverride or ArrangeOverride are called automatically in the appropriate circumstances.

ArrangeOverride

The ArrangeOverride method has a Size return value that's used by the layout system when rendering the panel itself, when the Arrange method is called on the panel by its parent in layout. It's typical that the input finalSize and the ArrangeOverride returned Size are the same. If they aren't, that means the panel is attempting to make itself a different size than what the other participants in layout claim is available. The final size was based on having previously run the measure pass of layout through your panel code, so that's why returning a different size isn't typical: it means you are deliberately ignoring measure logic.

Don't return a Size with an Infinity component. Trying to use such a Size throws an exception from internal layout.

All ArrangeOverride implementations should loop through Children, and call the Arrange method on each child element. Like Measure, Arrange doesn't have a return value. Unlike Measure, no calculated property gets set as a result (however, the element in question typically fires a LayoutUpdated event).

Here's a very basic skeleton of an ArrangeOverride method:


protected override Size ArrangeOverride(Size finalSize)
{
    //loop through each Child, call Arrange on each
    foreach (UIElement child in Children)
    {
        Point anchorPoint = new Point(); //TODO more logic for topleft corner placement in your panel
       // for this child, and based on finalSize or other internal state of your panel
        child.Arrange(new Rect(anchorPoint, child.DesiredSize)); //OR, set a different Size 
    }
    return finalSize; //OR, return a different Size, but that's rare
}

The arrange pass of layout might happen without being preceded by a measure pass. However, this only happens when the layout system has determined no properties have changed that would have affected the previous measurements. For example, if an alignment changes, there's no need to re-measure that particular element because its DesiredSize would not change when its alignment choice changes. On the other hand, if ActualHeight changes on any element in a layout, a new measure pass is needed. The layout system automatically detects true measure changes and invokes the measure pass again, and then runs another arrange pass.

The input for Arrange takes a Rect value. The most common way to construct this Rect is to use the constructor that has a Point input and a Size input. The Point is the point where the top left corner of the bounding box for the element should be placed. The Size is the dimensions used to render that particular element. You often use the DesiredSize for that element as this Size value, because establishing the DesiredSize for all elements involved in layout was the purpose of the measure pass of layout. (The measure pass determines all-up sizing of the elements in an iterative way so that the layout system can optimize how elements are placed once it gets to the arrange pass.)

What typically varies between ArrangeOverride implementations is the logic by which the panel determines the Point component of how it arranges each child. An absolute positioning panel such as Canvas uses the explicit placement info that it gets from each element through Canvas.Left and Canvas.Top values. A space-dividing panel such as Grid would have mathematical operations that divided the available space into cells and each cell would have an x-y value for where its content should be placed and arranged. An adaptive panel such as StackPanel might be expanding itself to fit content in its orientation dimension.

There are still additional positioning influences on elements in layout, beyond what you directly control and pass to Arrange. These come from the internal native implementation of Arrange that's common to all FrameworkElement derived types and augmented by some other types such as text elements. For example, elements can have margin and alignment, and some can have padding. These properties often interact. For more info, see Alignment, margin, and padding for UI element layout.

Panels and controls

Avoid putting functionality into a custom panel that should instead be built as a custom control. The role of a panel is to present any child element content that exists within it, as a function of layout that happens automatically. The panel might add decorations to content (similar to how a Border adds the border around the element it presents), or perform other layout-related adjustments like padding. But that's about as far as you should go when extending the visual tree output beyond reporting and using information from the children.

If there's any interaction that's accessible to the user, you should write a custom control, not a panel. For example, a panel shouldn't add scrolling viewports to content it presents, even if the goal is to prevent clipping, because the scrollbars, thumbs and so on are interactive control parts. (Content might have scrollbars after all, but you should leave that up to the child's logic. Don't force it by adding scrolling as a layout operation.) You might create a control and also write a custom panel that plays an important role in that control's visual tree, when it comes to presenting content in that control. But the control and the panel should be distinct code objects.

One reason the distinction between control and panel is important is because of Microsoft UI Automation and accessibility. Panels provide a visual layout behavior, not a logical behavior. How a UI element appears visually is not an aspect of UI that is typically important to accessibility scenarios. Accessibility is about exposing the parts of an app that are logically important to understanding a UI. When interaction is required, controls should expose the interaction possibilities to the UI Automation infrastructure. For more info, see Custom automation peers.

Other layout API

There are some other APIs that are part of the layout system, but aren't declared by Panel. You might use these in a panel implementation or in a custom control that uses panels.

  • UpdateLayout, InvalidateMeasure, and InvalidateArrange are methods that initiate a layout pass. InvalidateArrange might not trigger a measure pass, but the other two do. Never call these methods from within a layout method override, because they're almost sure to cause a layout loop. Control code doesn't typically need to call them either. Most aspects of layout are triggered automatically by detecting changes to the framework-defined layout properties such as Width and so on.
  • LayoutUpdated is an event that fires when some aspect of layout of the element has changed. This isn't specific to panels; the event is defined by FrameworkElement.
  • SizeChanged is an event that fires only after layout passes are finalized, and indicates that ActualHeight or ActualWidth have changed as a result. This is another FrameworkElement event. There are cases where LayoutUpdated fires, but SizeChanged does not. For example the internal contents might be rearranged, but the element's size didn't change.

Related topics

Reference
FrameworkElement.ArrangeOverride
FrameworkElement.MeasureOverride
Panel
Concepts
Alignment, margin, and padding for UI element layout
XAML overview
Quickstart: Create a UI with XAML

 

 

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