Dzhavat Ushev

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Auto-expand menu using Angular Material

This post is going to be a bit longer than usual so bear with me 🙂

I was working on a task at work where one of the requirements was to make a menu auto-expand whenever the user navigates to a sub-page that is part of a menu group. To give you a visual idea, take a look at the following video:

Pages 3 and 4 are grouped under “Nested menu” and the menu auto-expands when the user navigates to one of those pages.

Looks nice, doesn’t it? 😎

In this post I’ll show you how I built it. It’s not hard to achive but there’s one disclaimer.

The disclaimer: The solution I’m going to share in this post is specific to our components architecture. If you want to achieve the same in your project, the final solution might be different. So let me tell you a bit more about our setup before diving into the code.

Components architecture

The application I’m working on is made up of two parts:

  1. Application specific components
  2. Design System components

Design System components

As you might’ve guessed it, the Design System consists of small components focused on particular UI needs. They are used in the application.

As part of the Design System, we’ve got components like nav-list and nav-list-item, and an expand-on-active-link directive where the real magic happens 🪄

This component is a wrapper around mat-list-item from Material and has two requirements:

  1. Should support internal links
  2. Should support external links

The component class has a link Input and some logic that decides whether the link is internal or external. That’s not important for this post but you can see it in the final GitHub repo.

Here’s its template at this point:

<!-- nav-list-item.component.html -->
  *ngIf="isExternalLink; else internalLink"
  ><ng-container *ngTemplateOutlet="templateContent"></ng-container

<ng-template #internalLink>
  <a mat-list-item mat-ripple [routerLink]="link" routerLinkActive="active"
    ><ng-container *ngTemplateOutlet="templateContent"></ng-container

<ng-template #templateContent>

nav-list is a wrapper around mat-nav-list from Material. The component has an expandable Input property that, when set to true, places a mat-nav-list (and its projected content) inside a mat-expansion-panel, otherwise it displays mat-nav-list directly.

Here’s its template at this point:

<!-- mat-nav-list.component.html -->
<ng-container *ngIf="expandable; else navListTemplate">
  <mat-expansion-panel class="mat-elevation-z0">
      <mat-panel-title>{{ title }}</mat-panel-title>
    <ng-container *ngTemplateOutlet="navListTemplate"></ng-container>

<ng-template #navListTemplate>

We’ll come back to the expand-on-active-link directive later.

Application specific components

The application specific components is where components from the Design System are used.

The component simply puts nav-list and nav-list-item together. Its template is as follows:

<!-- sidebar-nav.component.html -->
  <nav-list-item link="/page-1">Page 1</nav-list-item>
  <nav-list-item link="/page-2">Page 2</nav-list-item>
  <nav-list-item link="">Angular</nav-list-item>

<nav-list [expandable]="true" [title]="'Nested menu'">
  <nav-list-item link="/page-3">Page 3</nav-list-item>
  <nav-list-item link="/page-4">Page 4</nav-list-item>

From the code above, the first nav-list displays a list of links while the second nav-list displays an expandable list of links grouped under the “Nested menu” title. Demo time ⌚

The expandable menu must be opened manually. Any highlighted menu item is hidden until the menu is expanded which can be confusing for the user. We want to fix that by adding auto-expand capabilities. Let’s see how.

Making the menu auto-expand

First let’s define some requirements:

  1. An expandable menu should automatically expand when the user navigates to a sub-page that is part the menu.
  2. An already expanded menu should stay open when the user navigates to another top level page.

There are probably a few solutions here. One could be to listen for the NavigationEnd router event and somehow figure out which nav-list to expand based on routes. Another could be to listen for the isActiveChange event on each routerLink and expand the closest nav-list. This is the approach I used.

So there are a few changes that needs to be made.

Modifying the nav-list-item component

Remember how this component supports internal and external links? Well, each internal link uses the routerLink directive, which conveniently has an isActiveChange Output property that emits true every time a link becomes active and false when it becomes inactive. For now we’ll simply forward the emitted value to another Output property on the nav-list component class. We’ll see why later.

So the component class and its template now look like this:

<!-- nav-list-item.component.html -->
<!-- ... -->
<a [routerLink]="link" (isActiveChange)="isActive.emit($event)" ...>...</a>
// nav-list-item.component.ts
  // ...,
  selector: 'nav-list-item',
export class NavListItemComponent {
  // ...

  @Output() isActive = new EventEmitter<boolean>();

Modifying the nav-list component

What we want to do here is query the template for all the projected nav-list-item components. We can use the @ContentChildren decorator for that.

// nav-list.component.ts
  // ...
  selector: 'nav-list',
export class NavListComponent {
  // ...

  navListItemComponents: QueryList<NavListItemComponent> | null = null;

Once we have all nav-list-item components we’re going to send them to a custom directive (shown below) that will listen for the isActive event on each link within a sub-menu and expand the related mat-expansion-panel component in case any of the links emit true.

Let’s modify the nav-list template first, then we’ll look at the custom directive.

<!-- nav-list.component.html -->
<!-- ... -->
  <!-- ... -->

As you can see, a custom expandOnActiveLink directive is added only on the mat-expansion-panel. The directive has one Input called navListItemComponents which takes a list of nav-list-item components.

Here’s the power of Angular’s directives. When you add a directive to a component, you can inject an instance of that component in the directive’s constructor. We’re going to use that for our advantage.

The plan is to inject an instance of MatExpansionPanel in the directive and use its open method to expand the panel whenever one of the projected nav-list-item components emits true from its isActive Output.

Let’s first see the directive, then we’ll talk about the code:

// expand-on-active-link.directive.ts
  selector: '[expandOnActiveLink]',
  exportAs: 'expandOnActiveLink',
  standalone: true,
export class ExpandOnActiveLinkDirective implements AfterContentInit {
  navListItemComponents: QueryList<NavListItemComponent> | null = null;

  constructor(private panel: MatExpansionPanel) {}

  ngAfterContentInit(): void {
    const navListItems = this.navListItemComponents?.toArray();

    if (navListItems) {
          mergeMap((item) => item.isActive),
          filter((isActive) => isActive)
        .subscribe(() => {
          // Looks like there’s a bug in `mat-drawer` component
          // that prevents `mat-expansion-panel` from expanding
          // This littl fella fixes it :)
          setTimeout(() =>, 0);

A few things to note here. First, navListItemComponents are accessed in the ngAfterContentInit lifecycle hook because ContentChildren queries are set right before it. Second, the from function takes an array of nav-list-item components and sends each component to the mergeMap operator. mergeMap picks up the isActive Output property of each component and merges their events into a single stream. The filter operator afterwards makes sure that only true events will continue down the stream. At the end, the injected panel instance is used to open the MatExpansionPanel component. setTimeout is used because at the time of this writing, apparently there’s a bug in Material that prevents mat-expansion-panel from expanding if it is placed inside a mat-drawer 🤷‍♂️.

Final demo

Wow, that was a lot! Here’s a final StackBlitz demo. Also a GitHub repo.


I hope you liked this post. It’s very specific to a particular component setup but an interesting challenge nonetheless.

Oh, but we’re not done yet! This is the part where you come in. Do you have a suggestion for improving the solution? What can be done differently? Let me know on Twitter.

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