SMS Bubble UI in iPhone Apps

Users of iPhone are no stranger to the built-in SMS application that displays your messages using cute little bubbles (see Figure 1).

However, this innovative UI feature is not exposed to the iPhone developers – you have to create it yourself if you want to have the same look-and-feel of the SMS application. Creating this UI – which I will call the Bubble UI, allow you to represent information in a conversational style. A good application of this is when you are creating a chat application. Messages exchanged between two persons can be shown in message bubbles.
In this article, I will walk you through the steps to create an UI that is similar to the SMS application.

Figure 1.The SMS application on the iPhone

Preparing the Images

First, you will need the image representing the bubble. I have an image as shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2.The message bubble

However, observe the message bubbles in the SMS application – they have varying sizes depending on the amount of text it is showing. Hence, your message bubble needs to be able to expand or contract as needed. The easiest way to do this without affecting the aspect of the image is to break it into nine smaller image fragments, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3.Breaking up the message bubble into 9 smaller fragments

If you want to expand the height of the bubble, simply stretch the middle row of images vertically (see left of Figure x). If you want to expand the width of the bubble, simply stretch the middle column of the images horizontally (see right of Figure 4).

Figure 4.Expanding the message bubble vertically and horizontally

Text to be displayed in the message bubble could then be overlayed on top of the image.

Note that to save some work you can simply stretch the entire bubble image instead of breaking it into nine smaller images. This depends on the type of images you want to use for the bubble. If your image is simply a rectangle, stretching the entire image is probably easier.

Creating the Project

Now that you know the tricks to creating the message bubbles, let’s create the project and put it to work.
Launch Xcode and create a new View-based Application (iPhone) project and name it BubbleUI. Create a new group under the Resources folder in your project and name it Icons. Drag and drop the nine images that you have prepared earlier into the Icons folder (see Figure 5).

Figure 5.Adding the images to the Resources/Icons folder

Double-click on the BubbleUIViewController.xib file to edit it in Interface Builder. Populate the View window with the following views (see also Figure 6):

  • Text Field
  • Round Rect Button
  • Table View

Figure 6.Populating the View window with the various views

I chose the Table View as the container to store all the messages bubbles. This is because the Table View allows scrolling and users can easily scroll through all the messages easily. Also, each message bubble will occupy a single row in the Table View. This is possible because you can customize each row in a Table View to occupy a specific height.

View the Attributes Inspector window for the Table View and set the attributes as shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7.Setting the attributes of the Table View

Setting the background color of the Table View to light blue (RGB value of 219, 226, 237) is to match the background color of my bubble image. Setting the Separator attribute of the Table View will hide the line that separates each row, making it look less like a Table View.

Next, set the background color of the View window to match that of the Table View (see Figure 8).

Figure 8.Setting the attributes of the View window

In the BubbleUIViewController.h file, add the following statements:

Back in Interface Builder, right-click on the Table View and connect the dataSource and delegate outlets to the File’s Owner item. Also, connect the tableView outlet to the Table View. Figure 9 shows the connection.

Figure 9.Connecting the outlets of the Table View

Next, connect the Did End On Exit event of the Text Field view to the doneEditing: action (see Figure 10). Also connect it to the itemName outlet.

Figure 10.Connecting the Text Field’s outlets and actions

Finally, connect the Touch Up Inside event of the Round Rect Button to the btnAdd: action (See Figure 11).

Figure 11.Connecting the action to the Add button

In the BubbleUIViewController.m file, add in the following code. First, add in the following statements to declare some variables and constants:

Define the doneEditing: action as follows:

In the viewDidLoad method, initialize the various variables and arrays:

Set the number of sections for the Table View to 1:

The listOfMessages array will contain the number of messages you want to display. Hence, you will use its count as the number of rows for the Table View:

For simplicity, all the message bubbles in this article will have a fixed width. Specifically, its width will be 3 times the width of each bubble fragment. All the text to be displayed will be constrained to this width (with a total left and right margin of 25 pixels). Hence the next step is to be able to calculate the overall height of a Label view that will be used to display a string of text. To do so, you will define the following method:

The above method takes in a string and calculates the height of a Label view that will display the string within a specific width.
As each row in the Table View will display a message bubble, each of varying heights, the next step is to set the height of each row in the Table View. You do so via the following method:

The most challenging is the part where you add the bubble to the Table View. Let’s see the code first and then I will explain it in parts. Here is the full method:

This method looks lengthy, but it is actually very straightforward. The following pseudo code explains how it works:

Basically, you create UIImageView and Label views to form the bubble to display the text. In this example, there are nine UIImageView, each representing a fragment of the bubble. These views are added to the cell, which is an instance of the UITableViewCell class. When the user flicks the Table View, all the rows that are bounced off the screen are now reused, hence when you add a view to the cell, you attach a tag to it, like this:

When you want to reuse the view, you retrieve it like this:

When the user taps the Add button, you will add the message to the listOfMessages array and then reload the Table View. You will also add the current date and time to the dateOfMessages array:

Finally, release the two arrays in the dealloc method:

Press Command-R to test the application on the iPhone Simulator. Figure 12 shows how the application looks like.

Figure 12.Testing the application


In this article, you have learned how to build the SMS-type of UI. You can adapt the code covered in this article to include bubbles of different colors, shapes and sizes. Most importantly, it makes your application much more interesting and easier to use.

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