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A Simple Drag-and-Drop NSView in Swift

The Problem

I had a view with a simple vertical stack of subviews and I wanted to give the user the ability to reorder the subviews using drag-and-drop. Instead of implementing AppKit’s drag-and-drop API, I wrote my own mechanism by hooking into NSResponder’s mouseDragged(...) method and NSWindow’s trackEventsMatchingMask(...) -> Void. That way I could control the logic at the relevant steps during the user’s action, without relying on AppKit’s unseen magic. Finally, I refactored the logic into protocol extensions.

The Setup

I start with a view that contains the subviews I need to reorder. Following Cocoa’s drag-and-drop API, I call this container view the Target. There are two important methods to implement. The first is layoutSubviews(subviews: [NSView]).

    func layoutSubviews(subviews: [NSView]) {

if subviews.isEmpty { return }

var prev: NSView?

for subview in subviews {

options: [],
metrics: nil,
views: ["subview": subview]
item: subview,
attribute: .Top,
relatedBy: .Equal,
toItem: prev != nil ? prev! : self,
attribute: prev != nil ? .Bottom : .Top,
multiplier: 1,
constant: prev != nil ? 1 : 0)
prev = subview

item: prev!,
attribute: .Bottom,
relatedBy: .Equal,
toItem: self,
attribute: .Bottom,
multiplier: 1,
constant: 0)


You pass into this method an array of subviews and it will use autolayout to arrange the subviews from top to botton to match the order of the array. It assumes these subviews have already been added to the view: the superview never adds or removes any of these subviews during the drag operation.

The Method

Before looking at the second method the Target view is required to implement, I’ll explain the basic theory behind the solution. When the user tries to drag a view (I call it the “Source View”, following Cocoa’s drag and drop documentation), the mouseDragged(theEvent: NSEvent) method is called on the view (because it inherits from NSResponder). My Source view subclass overrides this method in order to tell its superview that a drag is beginning. It does this by calling that second method on the superview I referred to earlier.

	// In the subview, an NSView subclass

override func mouseDragged(theEvent: NSEvent) {

if let target = superview as? MyTargetView {
target.reorderSubview(self, withEvent: theEvent)


The superview, what I’m calling the Target, now knows to do several things. Here’s the full method, then I’ll explain the steps.

	// In the superview, an NSView subclass

func reorderSubview(subview: Source, withEvent event: NSEvent) {

let position = NSMaxY(frame) - NSMaxY(subview.frame)
let initial = convertPoint(event.locationInWindow, fromView: nil).y

let draggingView = subview.draggingView

let draggingConstraints = [
NSLayoutConstraint(item: draggingView, attribute: .Top, relatedBy: .Equal, toItem: self, attribute: .Top, multiplier: 1, constant: position),
NSLayoutConstraint(item: draggingView, attribute: .Leading, relatedBy: .Equal, toItem: self, attribute: .Leading, multiplier: 1, constant: 0),
NSLayoutConstraint(item: draggingView, attribute: .Trailing, relatedBy: .Equal, toItem: self, attribute: .Trailing, multiplier: 1, constant: 0)

subview.hidden = true

var previous = initial

window?.trackEventsMatchingMask([.LeftMouseUpMask, .LeftMouseDraggedMask], timeout: NSDate.distantFuture().timeIntervalSinceNow, mode: NSEventTrackingRunLoopMode) { [unowned self] (dragEvent, stop) in

guard dragEvent.type != NSEventType.LeftMouseUp else {

subview.hidden = false
stop.memory = true


let next = self.convertPoint(dragEvent.locationInWindow, fromView: nil).y

draggingConstraints[0].constant = position + initial - next

let middle = NSMidY(draggingView.frame)
let top = NSMaxY(subview.frame)
let bottom = NSMinY(subview.frame)

let movingUp = next > previous && (middle > top)
let movingDown = next < previous && (middle < bottom)

func moveSubview(direction: DragDirection) {

let index = self.subviews.indexOf(subview)!
let removeIndex: Int
let insertIndex: Int

switch direction {
case .Up:
removeIndex = index
insertIndex = index - 1
case .Down:
removeIndex = index + 1
insertIndex = index

let temp = self.subviews.removeAtIndex(removeIndex)
self.subviews.insert(temp, atIndex: insertIndex)
self.layoutSubviews(self.subviews.filter { $0 != draggingView })


if movingUp && subview != self.subviews.first! {

if movingDown && subview != self.subviews.last! {

previous = next

  1. First, the methods extracts the vertical distance from the top of the superview to the top of the dragged subview and saves it in position and it gets the y coordinate of the mouse-down location from theEvent and saves it in initial.

  2. Then, it gets an image of the subview being dragged and adds it to the superview. draggingConstants are set up so that the copy is superimposed directly over the original subview. This copy will appear to the user as the original subview being dragged. But in fact, that subview has its hidden property set to true during the drag operation. Hiding the subview allows it to still provide the user feedback as a placeholder of the subview’s new position.

  3. The method calls the window’s trackEventsMatchingMask method, and supplies it the block of code that makes up the remainder of the method. The user either drags the mouse or releases the button.

    • If the user releases the mouse, the NSEventType.LeftMouseUp tells the block to stop and the window stops tracking mouse events for the method. The copy of the subview is removed and the subview becomes unhidden.

    • Otherwise, as the user continues to drag the mouse, the vertical distance between the current mouse position and the previous one is subtracted from the dragging view’s layout constraint constant anchoring it to the top of the superview. So the dragging view moves up and down as the mouse goes up and down.

  4. If the mouse drags far enough that it needs to switch position with another view, the nested function moveSubview(direction: DragDirection) is called and the subviews are first reordered and then layoutSubviews is called, updating the UI to match the new order.

Finally, let me say that much of this technique was inspired by this project (Objc) by Mark Onyschuk, in which he builds a tab view control much like the one seen in Thanks Mark!