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What exactly are UIStackViews?

Subtly appearing during the WWDC keynote last week, our developers were intrigued to find out what UIStackView involved. Since then, they dived straight into the pre-release documentation to see exactly what they were. This blog by Rich Hodgkins, one of Mubaloo’s senior iOS developers shows his findings.


The Old Way

Many of the apps we make have a screen consisting of a number of text fields where the user can enter some information. A classic example of this is a registration page:

Registration page

If the page is quite simple, where all fields must be filled out to continue, the simplest way is often to have each field as a cell in a UITableView. If the UI is a bit more complex, you can have different prototypes for the different styles of field. You’ll most likely be left with a rather large tableView(_:cellForRowAtIndexPath:) method, with a switch statement configuring each row / field.

Xcode 6 improved on this with the ability to add static cells to a UITableViewController in a storyboard. This allowed you to create all the different cells you needed and then hook up the fields as IBOutlets. Interface Builder also supported sections, including their headers and footers.

Making It More Complicated

Whilst using a table view is usually fine for simple cases, fields often have dependencies based on the input of other fields. In the above example, if you select United States as the country, another field appears to allow you to pick your state.

Screenshot of registration form with dynamic content based on form input

This sort of requirement makes it much more complicated to use a UITableView for screens like this. You have to check the value of the related field and add or remove rows as necessary, as well as ensuring that your data source and delegate methods are returning the correct values depending on the presence of a given row.

This registration page was actually constructed using constraints to keep things simpler and because static tables were not available when the app was created. The layout uses UIViews as containers, all placed in a UIScrollView. The visibility of the dependent fields is then controlled by changing the constant property of the various constraints and updating the hidden property of the view. While this solution worked, there just seemed a bit too much layout code for such a simple thing!

WWDC 2015 and Stack Views

As usual at WWDC, Apple introduced the new technologies for developers with their typical slide:


Other than their appearance on this slide, stack views were not mentioned during the keynote. Intrigued, we dived straight into the pre-release documentation to see what they were!

In short: a UIStackView is a new control that simplifies laying out a collection of views either vertically or horizontally, with very little need for manually adding auto layout constraints. If you’ve used WatchKit, then you can think of them as a supercharged WKInterfaceGroup.

It’s nice to see that Apple have provided great documentation for UIStackView, and obviously are pushing developers to use them. In fact, the WWDC session Implementing UI Designs in Interface Builder recommends you use UIStackView everywhere and only fall back to using constraints if necessary.

The actual API interface for UIStackView is pretty small, with methods for changing the arrangedSubviews in the stack and properties for changing the way these views are displayed. This post won’t cover everything, as the documentation gives you more than you need to get started and provides a great overview. It’s also worth reading the section in the about Maintaining Consistency Between the Arranged Views and Subviews.

The rest of this post will cover some use cases and some clever stuff you can do when changing the layouts.


Take the following layout:

Screenshot of Interface Builder showing all the constraints

This view has 31 constraints in Interface Builder – they wouldn’t all fit on the screen! It’s difficult to update or manage in Interface Builder: if you delete the centre row, you’d have to add the constraints to space the top and bottom views back in. Additionally, changing the spacing of the views consists of changing the constants of multiple constraints. This gets even more messy when adding lots of rows.

Once this layout is converted to use stack views, you can’t visually tell the difference between the two implementations at runtime. In terms of managing the views however, it’s a lot simpler.

There are only 4 constraints to layout the stack view in its container – and that’s it. The stack view uses the intrinsic content size of its arrangedSubviews to size itself. The spacing attribute can be used to change the spacing between all the views at once, and by default the views are set to use the full width (or height for a horizontal stack view) of the stack view.

When dragging a view into the stack view, Interface Builder places the view in the correct position and gives it the correct frame; you no longer need to constantly use the Update Frames menu option.

This layout uses 4 stack views of different orientations. The top two rows are nested horizontal stack views, with the first row having another nested vertical stack view inside of that.

Dynamic layouts

So what about the more complex use case we discussed above, where a view’s visibility is based on the input of other views?

Screen shot of dynamic stack view layout

Here we have a vertical stack view with some controls in it to change the state of the views1.

To show and hide the relevant controls, we can literally just hide and show the views in question:

@IBAction func doImageSwitchChangedAction() {
    imageRow.hidden = !imageSwitch.on

Normally hiding a view laid out with Auto Layout doesn’t remove the view from layout pass calculations, so you’re just left with an empty space where the view was. Stack view automatically updates its layout when the hidden property of any of its arrangedSubviews are changed.

You can easily animate this layout change by just placing the above code in an animation block. Reconfiguring nested stack views in any animation block can give simple but effective animations of content changes:

Size Classes

Another great feature of stack view is that it allows its layout to be based on size classes in Interface Builder.

Take this simple layout, which consists of nested stack views:

Screen shot of layout in interface builder Screen shot of the layout in portrait

If this layout is used in landscape, it gets a bit squashed:

Screen shot of the squashedlayout in landscape

To improve the appearance of this view, we can give the stack view different axis values depending on the size class. In this example, we could pick a vertical layout for compact width, but a horizontal layout for compact height. This means we can alter the whole layout of the screen without writing one line of code!

Attributes based on specific size classes

The same thing can be applied to the Alignment, Distribution, Spacing, Baseline Relative and Layout Margins Relative attributes. The above example uses a spacing of 19 for the compact height size class. This is exactly the same as the way constraints can be adjusted for different size classes.

Now when rotating the device, the layout changes to a horizontally stacked group (well it should2):

Screen shot of the layout in landscapeAnimated example to follow once bug is fixed

This can be taken further; for example, having 4 rows of items when there is a compact width, 4 columns when there is a compact height with a regular width, and any other layouts showing a 2×2 grid:

Animation showing the transition from 4 rows, to 2x2 to 4 columns

Better example to follow once bug is fixed

The above example was completely created in Interface Builder without any code.

View hiearchy

The Root Stack View is given a default axis of horizontal and then a vertical axis for compact widths. The two inner stack views then both have horizontal axises for a compact height, falling back to vertical when needed.


Stack view looks like it’s going to be a vital tool for every iOS developer targeting iOS 9 and up. It allows the creation of complex layouts with no code and very few manual constraints. It can easily adapt to different size classes, and inserting and deleting items is a breeze.

The demo code for the examples can be viewed on Mubaloo’s GitHub account.

As mentioned above, the iOS 9 pre-release documentation are also a great place to start as well as the WWDC session Implementing UI Designs in Interface Builder.

This post will be kept up to date with any changes that are made to UIStackView before iOS 9 is finally released.

  1. Note that the stretched UISwitch may be a bug in Interface Builder, as it appears correctly at runtime.
  2. This does not actually work in iOS 9 beta 1 (https://forums.developer.apple.com/message/10510#10510)

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