Expression Blend for Developers

Expression Blend often times is portrayed as a tool for graphic designers, which is fair enough, but this can be a little daunting for people who are artistically challenged like myself. If you’re primarily a developer you probably want to use a developer tool, like Visual Studio, to do your work. But I might assert here that Expression Blend actually is a tool for developers and not to be dismissed! I often hear one of the following reasons from developers as to why they might avoid using Blend.

  • I’m not “artsy” I prefer to dig into code, none of this drag-and-drop business.
  • I’m working on a business application, making it look pretty is unnecessary, costly, fluff.
  • Having a dependency on .NET 3.5 isn’t worth it, I’ll stick with .NET 2.0.
  • etc.

I can summarize my response to all of these positions by simply saying that I would never choose to do WinForms or an MFC application over Wpf in any circumstances. If you’re not using Wpf, even for simple business applications, even if you don’t have a single artistic bone in your body you’re definitely missing out. I might even go one step further and saying you’re actually making a mistake.

I might even go so far as to say that the same thing holds true for doing Silverlight development over standard Web development. The benefits aren’t nearly as stacked in favor of Silverlight for the web as Wpf is for desktop applications but it’s still a winner in my eyes. Additionally, with Silverlight 3 you’ll be able to create applications that can be run as desktop applications or on the web. That kind of re-usability (of skills and code) is another win.

And Blend is the tool to make these technologies come alive.

User Experience

User experience is not “fluff” or unnecessary. Usability translates directly into money, even for simple business applications. The less usable your application is the larger the training costs, the longer the development time, the likelihood of data input errors becomes higher, and just general unhappiness from your customers can be a result if you don’t pay attention to UX. This is a competitive market, customers more and more have higher expectations from every piece of software they use, especially ones that they’re paying money for.

And believe it or not as a developer you’re definitely going to want to learn a little something about Expression Blend. You don’t need to be an expert and know all of the various tricks and commands but you’ll probably find a huge productivity gain from just from knowing a little. And as we know, productivity is money in your pocket.

Roles

Typically if you’re a developer in a Wpf project you’ll find yourself in one of two roles.

  • Designer supporter
  • The Devigner (Designoper?)

The Designer Supporter

As the developer tasked to work along side designers you may think that because you have people who are tasked with doing all of the UI work you don’t need to know anything about Xaml or Blend. Or even worse, you may know too little but just enough to screw up the workflow for the designers. Knowing a little bit about Expression Blend and how to effectively support your Designers will be critical to your success. Here is a quick list of things you should learn about.

  • DataBinding
    • Binding class
    • IValueConverter
    • ObjectDataProvider
    • Design time data
  • ViewModels
    • INotifyPropertyChanged
    • INotifyCollectionChanged
  • Markup Extensions
  • Behaviors
  • Custom Controls
    • Visual State Manager
    • DependencyObject
    • DependencyProperty
    • Attached properties
  • Theming
    • Generic.xaml
    • [assembly:ThemeInfo]
  • Commands
  • Routed Events

As a developer supporting designers you will find yourself either having to DataBind your ViewModels to an existing UI created by the designers or you will have to create ViewModels that the designers can then build their UI around. Most likely the designers will want the former while developers will want the latter. All I can say is that the sooner you bring them both together and make it real the better off you will be.

The above topics will be crucial to know in order to preserve the developer / designer workflow with minimal friction.

The Devigner

You may actually be artistically inclined enough to claim this title yourself but then again maybe you’re simply tasked with this out of necessity. For developers who find themselves plunging into the world of Expression Blend here is a list of tasks, in addition to the previous list, that you may want to start learning about.

  • Templates
    • ControlTemplate
    • DataTemplate
    • DataTrigger
    • TemplateBinding
  • Visual State Manager
  • Storyboards
  • Commands
  • Styles
    • Setters
    • Triggers
  • Resources
    • Merged Dictionaries
  • Gradients
  • Layout Controls
    • Grid
    • StackPanel
    • ListBox
    • DockPanel
    • Canvas
  • Layout Transform vs. Render Transform

And really the list goes on and on. There is a myriad of things to learn but this is a pretty good start.

The important thing to know here though is that Expression Blend is not just a tool for Designers. It’s simply a tool geared towards creating rich interactive applications. Designers and developers alike will benefit greatly from this tool in any Wpf project, whether you’re just hooking up DataBinding for designers or doing it all yourself.

I would like to break down each of these topics in following blog posts with a developer oriented slant and how they can be done in Blend, so keep an eye out for those!

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