Developing Multicolumn-DropDown/DropDownList with ASP.NET, the GridView and the AJAX Control Toolkit

During the last months I was developing an ASP.NET application and I needed a dropdownlist to display multiple columns in each item. Everyone with a little knowledge in Web-development knows, that HTML doesn’t contain built-in support for multicolumn-DropDowns. HTML only knows a <select>-Tag that can contain multiple <option>-Tags, but each <option>-Tag just represents one column in the dropdown.

In this post we’ll take a look at different possiblities to display the properties of a simple Friend-class in one dropdown-"option". The Friend-Class looks like this:

Below you see the four approaches we’ll look at in this post:

  • The easieast way to do it: Using string concatenation
  • Use third-party controls that have the multicolumn-feature
  • Develop your one multicolumn-DropDown with AJAX Control Extenders
  • Make the multicolumn-DropDown usable for many rows

The easiest way to do it: Using string concatenation

The easiest way I can think of is to use simple string concatenation and a monospace font like courier new. First thing to do is to add an asp:DropDownList to your page. Don’t forget to set it to a monospace font. You can do this via style-Attribute.

The DropDownList can be filled up in code-behind, e.g. in the Page_Load-Event. The most tricky part is to add multiple blanks. The DropDownList automatically encodes the added string to HTML and all blanks per default become one blank. That would cause the columns not to be displayed exactly below each other. One solution to this is to add blanks as a unicode escape sequence (\u00A0). The DropDownList will automatically convert these into "&#160"which can be interpreted by the browser.

The result for the DropDownList above feels like this:

I’ve to add that this solution via string concatenation doesn’t look really cool. So let’s take a look at other approaches.

Use third-party controls that have the multicolumn-feature

There are different third-party controls that have the multicolumn-feature. E.g. Infragistics has a WebCombo-Control that can display multiple-Columns. On Codeproject there’s also a Control availabe, but unfortunately with no source-code of the control itself: I looked at this control, but I think it isn’t a great idea to use it for a professional application without having support and without having full source code.

So I’ve tried the Infragistics WebCombo. It worked very well up to 20 records when displaying about 5 columns. With 200 records it became very very slow in IE7. E.g. while the mouse cursor moved from item 90 to item 100, the WebCombo still showed the mouseOver-Color on item 90, then the mouseOver-Color moved slowly to item 91, 92, 93… The time used for this task was over 1 second till the mouseOver-color reached item 100. As I needed a multiple column dropdownlist with at least 200 items, the Infragistics WebCombo was no solution for me (I’ve used NetAdvantage_ASPNET_2008 Vol. 2_CLR2.x). Maybe the team of Infragistics can check this and make it faster for IE7.

So after evaluation more dropdowns from other vendors and after a phone call with Jean-Claude Trachsel, another ASP.NET-Professional@Trivadis, I decided to create a multiplecolumn-dropdownlist on my own using the AJAX Control Extenders and the build-in GridView.

Develop your one multicolumn-DropDown with AJAX Control Extenders and ASP’s GridView

Starting the development of a multicolumn-dropdown, the first thing to is is to add an UpdatePanel to your site:

Inside the <ContentTemplate>-Tag of the UpdatePanel I place a TextBox and an ASP-Panel. The Panel’s Style is set, so that it isn’t visible per default. Below the Panel I’ve placed a DropDownExtender from the AJAX Control ToolKit. Download the Toolkit here. The DropDownExtender has a DropDownControlID- and a TargetControlID-Property. When the TargetControl is clicked (here the txtFriend-TextBox) the DropDownControl (here the FriendDropDown-Panel) becomes visible.

As I’ve added the DropDownExtender out of Visual Studio’s ToolBox, the following Register-Directive was created automatically on my page and also an assembly-reference was set automatically.

Next you’ve to add a GridView inside the FriendDropDown-Panel. Just drag it out of the toolbox and set the properties you need. Here the GridView is named FriendGridView. Two Eventhandlers are defined for the events RowDataBound and SelectedIndexChanged, which are necessary for this multicolumn-scenario. But before we look at the Eventhandlers in the Codebehind-file, first look at the invisibleColumn stye, which is set on the first BoundField in the GridView.

The FriendGridView has four columns, each bound to a property of the Friend-class. As the ID-property shouldn’t be visible to the user, the Headers and Items of this BoundField are using the CSS-class "invisibleColumn". This class simple set’s the width to zero and the display-property to none, so that this column is not visible to the user, but you can access it on a postback, e.g. to update the Friend-object in a database, where you’ll need the ID. On the page I’ve also set the font-family and font-size, as you can see below.

The next thing to do is to add the EventHandlers in the Codebehind-file. In the SelectedIndexChanged-Event the Text of the txtFriend-TextBox is set to the value of the second cell of the selectedRow. The second cell contains the FirstName. As the GridView is in an UpdatePanel with the TextBox, only this part of the Page is refreshed on the Clientside (via AJAX).

To display some mouseover-effects on the GridView and to allow selection by clicking on a row, the RowDataBound-Eventhandler is necessary. There some Javascript is added to each row of the GridView.

The most important on the snippet above is the last line that adds the onclick-Attribute to the row. With this attribute and the value of it the row is selected via click and doesn’t need a Select-Button, like the default-GridView needs to select a row. When a row is clicked, the SelectedIndexChanged-Event is automatically triggered by that JavaScript and the txtFriend-TextBox is set to the selected firstname in the Eventhandler for SelectedIndexChanged.

To make it really working, the last thing to do is to add the EnableEventValidation-Attribut to your page and set it to false. This allows the JavaScript from the snippet above to invoke the SelectedIndexChanged-Event. As an alternative to setting this attribute to false you can take a look at the RegisterForEventValidation-Method of ClientScriptManager that you can call in the Render-Method of your page.

That’s all. Now let’s take a look at the dropdown. Just fill it in the Page_Load-Event with the same data as the string-concatenated dropdown before.

Below you see the created multicolumn-Dropdown. I’ve selected Christoph and reopened the DropDown again. The TextBox displays his firstname and the GridView shows the selected row.


Make the multicolumn-DropDown usable for many rows

If you’ve more rows, the dropDownList should be scrollable. To add scrollsupport, simply extend the Style-Property of the FriendDropDown-Panel and add an overflow– and a max-height-attribut. Set the overflow-attribut to scroll, and the max-height to a value of your choice.

For test-purposes I’ve just filled the FriendDropDown-GridView with more than 4 Rows to get the scroll behavior. In Firefox it looks great.


Unfortunately Internet Explorer 7 doesn’t calculate the size of the vertical scrollbar to the Panel (it’s a div-tag in HTML) containing the GridView. So in Internet Explorer 7 you won’t see the total of the last column. Instead of that you have to scroll horizontally.


To get very simply rid of that, I’ve added a dummy-column as the last column (and so the column on the right side) to the GridView that has a width of 15px. 15px is about the width of the vertical scrollbar.

Now that dummy-column will be behind the vertical scrollbar and the user is able to see all necessary columns.


If the user scroll’s to the right with the horizontal scrollbar, he just sees the dummy-column.


So that’s all.

I think you can develop a control out of that stuff if necessary.

If you have additional information about developing multicolumn-Drowdowns or any feedback, just write a comment or a mail via the contact-formular on my homepage. Grab the source here: Please write a comment if you like it on this blogpost.

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Thanks a lot. :-)