Microsoft & .NET.NETQuick Debugger Visualizers in Visual Studio 2005

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Debugging in Visual Studio is a wonderful thing. You can use the tools
built into the debugger to drill into the values of objects and their
member variables easily. But even wonderful things can be improved, and
that’s exactly what Microsoft has done with the introduction of debugger
visualizers in Visual Studio 2005. Debugger visualizers allow you to
provide a custom user interface for the display of particular classes of
data when your program is in debug mode. While there are some complex use
cases for this, you can actually derive considerable benefit from very
simple debugger visualizers – ones that take ten minutes or less to build.
Here’s how.

The Problem of Objects

Visual Studio knows how to drill into your custom objects, but by
default it doesn’t know much more than that. Suppose, for example, you’ve
built a task-tracking application with a very simple Task class:

class Task
    private string _TaskName;
    public string TaskName
            return _TaskName;
            _TaskName = value;

    private DateTime _Due;
    public DateTime Due
            return _Due;
            _Due = value;

    private string _Description;
    public string Description
            return _Description;
            _Description = value;

    public void Save()
        // code to save the object goes here

Somewhere in your application, you’re creating and saving Task objects.
If you go into debug mode, you can get a display similar to that shown in
Figure 1.

The information is all there, but it’s not really well formatted.
Private and public members are jumbled together, and long text strings
stretch out to the right until stopped by the size of your screen. Let’s
see how you can do better.

Creating the Debugger Visualizer

To make debugging within this particular application easier, I’m going
to build a single-purpose debugger visualizer right into the application.
This will require adding one class and one form. To get started,
right-click on the project and select Add, New Item. This opens up the
dialog box shown in Figure 2. As you can see, C# delivers a Debugger
Visualizer item type, which makes this whole process almost trivial.

Adding a debugger visualizer

The debugger visualizer skeleton includes clear instructions on what to
do to make it work. First, I have to decorate my Task class to indicate
that it can be visualized by the visualizer that I just created. Note that
the class also has to be marked serializable; that’s how its data gets
passed to the visualizer:

class Task

The next step is to create the user interface that I want to use to
display instances of the Task class. In this case, I opted for a simple
Windows form, containing two TextBox controls and a DateTimePicker
control. To make life simpler, I went into the generated code for the form
and changed the visibility of those controls to public.

Form in hand, the only remaining task was to modify the
Show method of the debugger visualizer class. This method
gets handed the object being debugged, and displays it. Here’s my modified

        protected override void Show(IDialogVisualizerService windowService, 
            IVisualizerObjectProvider objectProvider)
            Task data = (Task)objectProvider.GetObject();

            using (TaskDebuggerForm displayForm = new TaskDebuggerForm())
                displayForm.txtTask.Text = data.TaskName;
                displayForm.dtpDue.Value = data.Due;
                displayForm.txtDescription.Text = data.Description;

The Debugger Visualizer in Action

Believe it or not, that’s all that’s needed to improve the debugging
experience. Now, with the code in debug mode and a Task object in scope,
Visual Studio knows that my custom debugger visualizer is available, and
it shows a little magnifying glass icon next to the variable data type
when I hover my mouse over the variable. CLicking the magnifying glass
invokes my debugger visualizer, opening the form and passing in the data,
as shown in Figure 3.

Adding a debugger visualizer

Next Steps

This particular debugger visualizer is private to this project; in
effect, it’s a throwaway. The bar to creating such a tool is so low in
Visual Studio 2005 that it’s feasible to build one any time you’ve got a
class that would benefit from its own dedicated display in debug mode,
even if you’re only going to be dealing with it for an hour or two.

You may ultimately create a debugger visualizer that’s not a throwaway.
Perhaps it’s for a utility class that you reuse in many projects, or
you’ve come up with a neat visualization for some common type such as a
DataSet or an XmlDocument. In that case, you’ll want to move your code to
its own class library, and compile it independently. Then just copy the
DLL to either Microsoft Visual Studio
or My DocumentsVisual
Studio 2005Visualizers
. Restart Visual Studio, and your new
visualizer will be available to every project that you load.

About the Author

Mike Gunderloy is the author of over 20 books and numerous articles on
development topics, and the lead developer for Larkware. Check out his latest books, Coder to Developer and Developer to Designer,
both from Sybex. When
he’s not writing code, Mike putters in the garden on his farm in eastern
Washington state.

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