The Stochastic Game
Ramblings of General Geekery

WPF application patterns

There's quite a few articles about using the MVC, MVP, MVVM and other MSomethingSomething patterns with WPF applications out there, but I think there's still quite a few things to say on the subject before we can implement all those wonderful acronyms from A to Z without too much worry.

The goal of each of those patterns is to achieve separation of concerns for code reuse, scalability, extensibility, and testability, along with that warm fuzzy feeling you get when you look at your code and you think "wow, this is nice". However, which one should I use for this or that application? What are the pros and cons of each? How do they apply to WPF apps, and how do I implement them?

The View and its Model

Let's start with what we already have: windows and controls. In all those acronymed patterns, this is called the "View".

WPF gives us something with its data binding engine:

<Button Content="{Binding Name}" />

Whatever you bind to the Button needs to have a "Name" property, but there's no requirement on the types or interfaces of either the bound object, or the "Name" property. Of course, in more complex scenarios, things get, well, more complex, but only regarding the type of the properties. In this case, there's a good chance "Name" is assumed to be a System.String, but the object that has a Name can be anything.

This is pretty similar to duck-typing, and gives us a level of abstraction that allows us to switch data bound objects during testing, or even within the application itself, giving to the same UI element objects that behave differently, but look similar. The problem is that there's no way to really enforce the "public aspect" of the data bound object other than by launching the application and looking at the debugging output for some error and warning messages. This is like working with template classes in C++ where you can't know whether you can pass your class to a templated method or class until you've compiled your code and looked at the error messages (or absence thereof). I don't think it's a super nice way of working. IMHO it's better in, say, .NET, where you have constraints on generic classes, which effectively makes you lose the "duck-typing" aspect to C++ templates, but lets you worry less (and gives you all kinds of IDE features to improve your productivity). In our UI application, it's therefore probably better to "enforce" what we expect for our data bound objects by declaring an interface, unless you like looking at the debug output messages.

Here, whatever we bind to the view needs to have a name. The view interface probably has a ViewData property, or SetViewData method, that is of type INamed.

public interface INamed
string Name { get; }

Those data bound objects are collectively know as the "Model", but this is where some patterns diverge.

If your model is simple enough you won't need to go through an interface. The interface is really needed when unit testing a view can't be done with the actual model, or when the model has dependencies you want to hide. For example, if a model object generates queries to a database, or has other such side effects, you'll have to mock it during your tests. This means that either the object itself is mockable somewhere (disable database queries, or mock the database itself), or you need some wrapper that will expose it indirectly to the view. The wrapper can just be an interface that the model implements, or it can be a proxy object. On the other hand, if the object is "dumb", or has no undesired dependencies, you can use it even during the unit tests.

Mocking the inside of a complex model can lead to difficult to setup tests, where you need to mock the database and the logger and the netwok and whatnot, so it's only useful when you know it won't get out of hand. Some people solve the problem by making the view so empty (in terms of logic code) that there's no point in testing it. The ideal case in WPF is when the view is all XAML markup, with no code behind.

If you're using a proxy or wrapping object around the model, this is known as either the "Presentation Model", or the "View Model". It's a model that you craft specifically for the view, as opposed to the "business" model. In our case, it's frequently an object that implements all kinds of WPF-friendly stuff, like the INotifyPropertyChanged and INotifyCollectionChanged interfaces, or exposes properties that make it easier for WPF designer to write nice templates and styles. For example, you might have the following model:

public enum ModelFlags
public class Model
public ModelFlags Flags { get; set; }

The ModelProxy class, that you pass to the view, might have the following properties:

public class ModelProxy : INotifyPropertyChanged
public bool HasSomeFlag { get; }
public bool HasSomeOtherFlag { get; }
public bool HasYetAnotherFlag { get; }
public ModelProxy(Model model)
// wrap the model...

Those 3 boolean properties will make it easy to dynamically change the look of your UI based on the model's state, because they're easy to hook up to style triggers in XAML markup. If you manage to implement INotifyPropertyChanged for those properties, that's even better, because the UI will change at runtime as the model gets updated.

Controllers and Presenters

Now that we have our views, and the model they manipulate and expose (whether it's the actual model, or some view/presentation model), we need someone to implement the application logic, respond to user input, and take care of the flow that leads the user from view to view. Depending on the pattern you're using, those classes are "Controllers" or "Presenters". Controllers typically handle business logic, whereas presenters handle user input too. I'll only refer to Controllers here to prevent awkward wording.

In WPF there's a few tools that fit quite well with those patterns. The first one is the command mechanism.

<Button Content="{Binding Name}" Command="{x:Static ApplicationCommands.Properties}" />

In this case, our button now triggers the "Properties" command. You can also pass a CommandParameter to the command when the button is invoked. You would typically use the data bound object as the parameter, so use that Binding markup extension there too.

The WPF commands have been quite extensively documented and discussed, so there's no need to explain how they work here. However, there's a few things worth noting.

First, the controller is going to be a class that has a reference to the view it's responsible for, probably through an interface so you can test it with a mocked view. This means the controller is not in WPF's logical or visual trees, so if you're using commands that bubble or tunnel up or down those trees (which is the case for the commonly used RoutedCommand and RoutedUICommand class), the controller can't be notified. There are mainly 2 ways to solve this problem:

  • The view interface exposes a CommandBindings property through which the controller can add its own command handlers. This is really just exposing the already existing CommandBindings property that you can find on almost all WPF controls. This means the view is the one that will really catch the command invocation, but the delegates you're registering will be the controller's. The advantage is that it's super ultra easy to setup. The disadvantage is that only a view's controller can listen to a given command emitted from that view. You could get around this by having a mechanism to get access to other views, but it can become quite messy for highly modular UIs.
  • The other solution is to implement your own kind of commands, as WPF really only knows about the ICommand interface, which was a pretty good move from the guys who designed it. Take a look at the recently released Composite Application Guidance for WPF, where they have commands specifically written for being handled by non UI classes in a modular application.

Second, you might ask the seemingly stupid question: "Who came first? The view or the controller?".

The problem is that the view and the controller both have a reference to each other. The view needs to give the controller some context for it to figure out what to do, and then needs to drive the view into doing what it decided. Using custom written commands in simple scenarios will probably let you avoid keeping a reference in one or the other, but more often than not, you'll need a cyclic reference. This has some impact when using inversion of control or dependency injection frameworks, because this means the view will take the controller as a constructor parameter, or the other way around. This means you "pull" one out of your factory, and the other one gets "pulled" in order to be passed as a dependency.

So far, I haven't found any compelling argument for one or the other. What I do is pass the controller as a constructor parameter to the view because, in my mind, the view comes first. Whether a controller gets attached or not just means you get a functional or completely dead UI. Also, I find that I reuse views with different controllers more often than the other way around, so that's leads to an easier setup of my dependency injection container. You can find arguments for the other way, too. For example, if you consider that the ideal case for a view is to be only plain XAML markup, then the view shouldn't have by default any reference to the controller. This means in turn that the view should be passed as a constructor parameter to the controller.

Some people make the controller also be the view model. They set the view's DataContext to be the instance of the controller responsible for that view. Of course, this is done through an interface. Note that you can play around, here, with 2 interfaces (one for the controller "role" and one for the view model "role") that the controller class both implements. This will be easier to mock for unit tests, and to set up the dependency injection container in the application. Anyway, this can have some advantages, but it prevents reuse of view models, which happens a lot whether it's because you pass the same type to different views, or because you use compositon or inheritance between view model classes.

So what, then?

Well, I hope I gave a good overview of the options that are available when designing a WPF application. It really starts with the UI itself, and commands and data binding, because that's some good stuff you get for free. Design your application around those concepts, and depending on the model you want to manipulate (legacy business model, model you're going to build along with the application, model that comes from a library you don't own, etc.), adapt yourself by either using the PresenterModel or ViewModel patterns as needed. Keep an eye out for testability, and extensibility.

We'll get to more concrete examples in future posts.