Drag'n'Drop with mouse events

Drag’n’Drop is a great interface solution. Taking something, dragging and dropping is a clear and simple way to do many things, from copying and moving (see file managers) to ordering (drop into cart).

In the modern HTML standard there’s a section about Drag Events.

They are interesting, because they allow to solve simple tasks easily, and also allow to handle drag’n’drop of “external” files into the browser. So we can take a file in the OS file-manager and drop it into the browser window. Then JavaScript gains access to its contents.

But native Drag Events also have limitations. For instance, we can limit dragging by a certain area. Also we can’t make it “horizontal” or “vertical” only. There are other drag’n’drop tasks that can’t be implemented using that API.

So here we’ll see how to implement Drag’n’Drop using mouse events. Not that hard either.

Drag’n’Drop algorithm

The basic Drag’n’Drop algorithm looks like this:

  1. Catch mousedown on a draggable element.
  2. Prepare the element to moving (maybe create a copy of it or whatever).
  3. Then on mousemove move it by changing left/top and position:absolute.
  4. On mouseup (button release) – perform all actions related to a finished Drag’n’Drop.

These are the basics. We can extend it, for instance, by highlighting droppable (available for the drop) elements when hovering over them.

Here’s the algorithm for drag’n’drop of a ball:

ball.onmousedown = function(event) { // (1) start the process

  // (2) prepare to moving: make absolute and on top by z-index
  ball.style.position = 'absolute';
  ball.style.zIndex = 1000;
  // move it out of any current parents directly into body
  // to make it positioned relative to the body
  document.body.append(ball);
  // ...and put that absolutely positioned ball under the cursor

  moveAt(event.pageX, event.pageY);

  // centers the ball at (pageX, pageY) coordinates
  function moveAt(pageX, pageY) {
    ball.style.left = pageX - ball.offsetWidth / 2 + 'px';
    ball.style.top = pageY - ball.offsetHeight / 2 + 'px';
  }

  function onMouseMove(event) {
    moveAt(event.pageX, event.pageY);
  }

  // (3) move the ball on mousemove
  document.addEventListener('mousemove', onMouseMove);

  // (4) drop the ball, remove unneeded handlers
  ball.onmouseup = function() {
    document.removeEventListener('mousemove', onMouseMove);
    ball.onmouseup = null;
  };

};

If we run the code, we can notice something strange. On the beginning of the drag’n’drop, the ball “forks”: we start to dragging it’s “clone”.

Here’s an example in action:

Try to drag’n’drop the mouse and you’ll see the strange behavior.

That’s because the browser has its own Drag’n’Drop for images and some other elements that runs automatically and conflicts with ours.

To disable it:

ball.ondragstart = function() {
  return false;
};

Now everything will be all right.

In action:

Another important aspect – we track mousemove on document, not on ball. From the first sight it may seem that the mouse is always over the ball, and we can put mousemove on it.

But as we remember, mousemove triggers often, but not for every pixel. So after swift move the cursor can jump from the ball somewhere in the middle of document (or even outside of the window).

So we should listen on document to catch it.

Correct positioning

In the examples above the ball is always centered under the pointer:

ball.style.left = pageX - ball.offsetWidth / 2 + 'px';
ball.style.top = pageY - ball.offsetHeight / 2 + 'px';

Not bad, but there’s a side-effect. To initiate the drag’n’drop can we mousedown anywhere on the ball. If do it at the edge, then the ball suddenly “jumps” to become centered.

It would be better if we keep the initial shift of the element relative to the pointer.

For instance, if we start dragging by the edge of the ball, then the cursor should remain over the edge while dragging.

  1. When a visitor presses the button (mousedown) – we can remember the distance from the cursor to the left-upper corner of the ball in variables shiftX/shiftY. We should keep that distance while dragging.

    To get these shifts we can substract the coordinates:

    // onmousedown
    let shiftX = event.clientX - ball.getBoundingClientRect().left;
    let shiftY = event.clientY - ball.getBoundingClientRect().top;

    Please note that there’s no method to get document-relative coordinates in JavaScript, so we use window-relative coordinates here.

  2. Then while dragging we position the ball on the same shift relative to the pointer, like this:

    // onmousemove
    // ball has position:absoute
    ball.style.left = event.pageX - shiftX + 'px';
    ball.style.top = event.pageY - shiftY + 'px';

The final code with better positioning:

ball.onmousedown = function(event) {

  let shiftX = event.clientX - ball.getBoundingClientRect().left;
  let shiftY = event.clientY - ball.getBoundingClientRect().top;

  ball.style.position = 'absolute';
  ball.style.zIndex = 1000;
  document.body.append(ball);

  moveAt(event.pageX, event.pageY);

  // centers the ball at (pageX, pageY) coordinates
  function moveAt(pageX, pageY) {
    ball.style.left = pageX - shiftX + 'px';
    ball.style.top = pageY - shiftY + 'px';
  }

  function onMouseMove(event) {
    moveAt(event.pageX, event.pageY);
  }

  // (3) move the ball on mousemove
  document.addEventListener('mousemove', onMouseMove);

  // (4) drop the ball, remove unneeded handlers
  ball.onmouseup = function() {
    document.removeEventListener('mousemove', onMouseMove);
    ball.onmouseup = null;
  };

};

ball.ondragstart = function() {
  return false;
};

In action (inside <iframe>):

The difference is especially noticeable if we drag the ball by it’s right-bottom corner. In the previous example the ball “jumps” under the pointer. Now it fluently follows the cursor from the current position.

Detecting droppables

In previous examples the ball could be dropped just “anywhere” to stay. In real-life we usually take one element and drop it onto another. For instance, a file into a folder, or a user into a trash can or whatever.

Abstractly, we take a “draggable” element and drop it onto “droppable” element.

We need to know the target droppable at the end of Drag’n’Drop – to do the corresponding action, and, preferably, during the dragging process, to highlight it.

The solution is kind-of interesting and just a little bit tricky, so let’s cover it here.

What’s the first idea? Probably to put onmouseover/mouseup handlers on potential droppables and detect when the mouse pointer appears over them. And then we know that we are dragging/dropping on that element.

But that doesn’t work.

The problem is that, while we’re dragging, the draggable element is always above other elements. And mouse events only happen on the top element, not on those below it.

For instance, below are two <div> elements, red on top of blue. There’s no way to catch an event on the blue one, because the red is on top:

<style>
  div {
    width: 50px;
    height: 50px;
    position: absolute;
    top: 0;
  }
</style>
<div style="background:blue" onmouseover="alert('never works')"></div>
<div style="background:red" onmouseover="alert('over red!')"></div>

The same with a draggable element. The ball in always on top over other elements, so events happen on it. Whatever handlers we set on lower elements, they won’t work.

That’s why the initial idea to put handlers on potential droppables doesn’t work in practice. They won’t run.

So, what to do?

There’s a method called document.elementFromPoint(clientX, clientY). It returns the most nested element on given window-relative coordinates (or null if coordinates are out of the window).

So in any of our mouse event handlers we can detect the potential droppable under the pointer like this:

// in a mouse event handler
ball.hidden = true; // (*)
let elemBelow = document.elementFromPoint(event.clientX, event.clientY);
ball.hidden = false;
// elemBelow is the element below the ball. If it's droppable, we can handle it.

Please note: we need to hide the ball before the call (*). Otherwise we’ll usually have a ball on these coordinates, as it’s the top element under the pointer: elemBelow=ball.

We can use that code to check what we’re “flying over” at any time. And handle the drop when it happens.

An extended code of onMouseMove to find “droppable” elements:

let currentDroppable = null; // potential droppable that we're flying over right now

function onMouseMove(event) {
  moveAt(event.pageX, event.pageY);

  ball.hidden = true;
  let elemBelow = document.elementFromPoint(event.clientX, event.clientY);
  ball.hidden = false;

  // mousemove events may trigger out of the window (when the ball is dragged off-screen)
  // if clientX/clientY are out of the window, then elementfromPoint returns null
  if (!elemBelow) return;

  // potential droppables are labeled with the class "droppable" (can be other logic)
  let droppableBelow = elemBelow.closest('.droppable');

  if (currentDroppable != droppableBelow) { // if there are any changes
    // we're flying in or out...
    // note: both values can be null
    //   currentDroppable=null if we were not over a droppable (e.g over an empty space)
    //   droppableBelow=null if we're not over a droppable now, during this event

    if (currentDroppable) {
      // the logic to process "flying out" of the droppable (remove highlight)
      leaveDroppable(currentDroppable);
    }
    currentDroppable = droppableBelow;
    if (currentDroppable) {
      // the logic to process "flying in" of the droppable
      enterDroppable(currentDroppable);
    }
  }
}

In the example below when the ball is dragged over the soccer gate, the gate is highlighted.

Result
style.css
index.html
#gate {
  cursor: pointer;
  margin-bottom: 100px;
  width: 83px;
  height: 46px;
}

#ball {
  cursor: pointer;
  width: 40px;
  height: 40px;
}
<!doctype html>
<html>

<head>
  <meta charset="UTF-8">
  <link rel="stylesheet" href="style.css">
</head>

<body>

  <p>Drag the ball.</p>

  <img src="https://en.js.cx/clipart/soccer-gate.svg" id="gate" class="droppable">

  <img src="https://en.js.cx/clipart/ball.svg" id="ball">

  <script>
    let currentDroppable = null;

    ball.onmousedown = function(event) {

      let shiftX = event.clientX - ball.getBoundingClientRect().left;
      let shiftY = event.clientY - ball.getBoundingClientRect().top;

      ball.style.position = 'absolute';
      ball.style.zIndex = 1000;
      document.body.append(ball);

      moveAt(event.pageX, event.pageY);

      function moveAt(pageX, pageY) {
        ball.style.left = pageX - shiftX + 'px';
        ball.style.top = pageY - shiftY + 'px';
      }

      function onMouseMove(event) {
        moveAt(event.pageX, event.pageY);

        ball.hidden = true;
        let elemBelow = document.elementFromPoint(event.clientX, event.clientY);
        ball.hidden = false;

        if (!elemBelow) return;

        let droppableBelow = elemBelow.closest('.droppable');
        if (currentDroppable != droppableBelow) {
          if (currentDroppable) { // null when we were not over a droppable before this event
            leaveDroppable(currentDroppable);
          }
          currentDroppable = droppableBelow;
          if (currentDroppable) { // null if we're not coming over a droppable now
            // (maybe just left the droppable)
            enterDroppable(currentDroppable);
          }
        }
      }

      document.addEventListener('mousemove', onMouseMove);

      ball.onmouseup = function() {
        document.removeEventListener('mousemove', onMouseMove);
        ball.onmouseup = null;
      };

    };

    function enterDroppable(elem) {
      elem.style.background = 'pink';
    }

    function leaveDroppable(elem) {
      elem.style.background = '';
    }

    ball.ondragstart = function() {
      return false;
    };
  </script>


</body>
</html>

Now we have the current “drop target” in the variable currentDroppable during the whole process and can use it to highlight or any other stuff.

Summary

We considered a basic Drag'n'Drop algorithm.

The key components:

  1. Events flow: ball.mousedowndocument.mousemoveball.mouseup (cancel native ondragstart).
  2. At the drag start – remember the initial shift of the pointer relative to the element: shiftX/shiftY and keep it during the dragging.
  3. Detect droppable elements under the pointer using document.elementFromPoint.

We can lay a lot on this foundation.

  • On mouseup we can finalize the drop: change data, move elements around.
  • We can highlight the elements we’re flying over.
  • We can limit dragging by a certain area or direction.
  • We can use event delegation for mousedown/up. A large-area event handler that checks event.target can manage Drag’n’Drop for hundreds of elements.
  • And so on.

There are frameworks that build architecture over it: DragZone, Droppable, Draggable and other classes. Most of them do the similar stuff to described above, so it should be easy to understand them now. Or roll our own, because you already know how to handle the process, and it may be more flexible than to adapt something else.

Tasks

importance: 5

Create a slider:

Drag the blue thumb with the mouse and move it.

Important details:

  • When the mouse button is pressed, during the dragging the mouse may go over or below the slider. The slider will still work (convenient for the user).
  • If the mouse moves very fast to the left or to the right, the thumb should stop exactly at the edge.

Open the sandbox for the task.

We have a horizontal Drag’n’Drop here.

To position the element we use position:relative and slider-relative coordinates for the thumb. Here it’s more convenient here than position:absolute.

Open the solution in the sandbox.

importance: 5

This task can help you to check understanding of several aspects of Drag’n’Drop and DOM.

Make all elements with class draggable – draggable. Like a ball in the chapter.

Requirements:

  • Use event delegation to track drag start: a single event handler on document for mousedown.
  • If elements are dragged to top/bottom window edges – the page scrolls up/down to allow further dragging.
  • There is no horizontal scroll.
  • Draggable elements should never leave the window, even after swift mouse moves.

The demo is too big to fit it here, so here’s the link.

Demo in new window

Open the sandbox for the task.

To drag the element we can use position:fixed, it makes coordinates easier to manage. At the end we should switch it back to position:absolute.

Then, when coordinates are at window top/bottom, we use window.scrollTo to scroll it.

More details in the code, in comments.

Open the solution in the sandbox.

Tutorial map

Comments

read this before commenting…
  • You're welcome to post additions, questions to the articles and answers to them.
  • To insert a few words of code, use the <code> tag, for several lines – use <pre>, for more than 10 lines – use a sandbox (plnkr, JSBin, codepen…)
  • If you can't understand something in the article – please elaborate.