Designing the Visual Studio 2013 User Experience

Designing the Visual Studio 2013 User Experience

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As we were beginning the development of Visual Studio 2012, the user experience teams from across Microsoft worked together to align the design of our products and services around a set of core company-wide design principles that each product and service applied to their specific domain. Windows Phone 8, Windows 8, Office 2013, and Visual Studio 2012 were the first wave of releases to reflect these shared principles in their new designs.

Having a more unified and consistent experience is growing in importance as we increasingly interconnect the new device platforms, tools, and services we are introducing this year and beyond.

Visual Studio 2012

The principle that had the greatest impact on the visual design of Visual Studio 2012 is frequently abbreviated as “content before chrome.” Applied to a development tool like Visual Studio, this principle translates to giving the content being created/edited dominant screen real estate and visual prominence.

Driven by this principle, the primary changes made to the visual design of Visual Studio 2012 were:

  • Increased content area by 3 lines of code in most contexts, through reduction of the interface chrome and toolbar real estate
  • All of the icons were redesigned in a simplified, modern style to reduce visual clutter
  • Introduced the Light and Dark themes, which utilize neutral tones to allow the chrome to recede and the content to stand out
  • The Status Bar was colorized, changing color to draw attention to the IDE state

Some of these changes to the user experience have been well received (or go largely unnoticed as a natural part of streamlining existing workflows). However, in some areas, we’ve received feedback that the changes in colors and designs went so far that they negatively impacted productivity and reduced the usability of the product.

Visual Studio 2013

In Visual Studio 2013 we are continuing to remain true to the Microsoft design principles while refining the VS 2012 visual design to address feedback and make improvements.

We have made broad but incremental changes, some of them subtle. Our overall aim is to have VS 2013 feel familiar to VS 2012 users, but better.

The changes are in the four primary areas which are explained and illustrated below.

Theme Chooser and Connected IDE

Starting with Update 2 of Visual Studio 2012 and moving forward, there are three built-in Color themes: Blue, Dark, and Light. Our surveys tell us that there are very strong feelings about the color themes—there is substantial support for all three, with each theme having at least 25% of developers who prefer it.

In Visual Studio 2013, you will be able to choose your preferred color theme when you first launch.

First launch theme chooser

First-launch theme chooser

Working with the new connected IDE feature, the theme that you choose will be stored in the cloud in your Visual Studio account, and will roam to other Visual Studio 2013 machines you use. Of course, you can still change the theme via Tools > Options at any time.

In Visual Studio 2013 each of the three themes is on equal footing. You choose your theme once and then you’ll not need to set it again.

In our surveys of users, when we compare the themes that they prefer to the themes that our data shows they are using, there is a consistent gap—40% to 45% of users are not running the theme that they prefer. Our primary aim with this new experience is to help more people land in the theme that they will be most satisfied with.

Color Theme Enhancements

For the Light and Dark themes we have received feedback about insufficient contrast between areas of the IDE and about difficulty locating the separators between windows.

In Visual Studio 2013 the themes have been revised to address this feedback by increasing contrast in the color palette and with the introduction of more border line work highlighting the edges of content areas.


Hover color


New border line work

Icon Colors

Based on your feedback, we have systematically added color to a large number of icons to increase their distinguishability and recognizability.

We have followed the icon color system diagrammed below, which uses accent colors in a consistent way while keeping them distinct from the colors used to draw attention to warnings/errors.

The additions to the color system in VS 2013 are primarily to the icons that include folders and to icons for save-related operations.  


Icon Color System in Visual Studio 2013 (click to enlarge)


Examples of new color icons

Icon Redesigns

Feedback about the icons with rectangular shapes was they were too heavy, causing them to be hard to distinguish from one another. We have addressed this with a systematic redesign of the common square/rectangular icons.

For some families of icons we received feedback that they didn’t properly convey the intended concept, or were too visually similar at a glance to other icons in the product. Many of these icons have been redesigned, most notably the family of icons that are work item-related.


Examples of redesigned icons


Building on the major design changes in Visual Studio 2012, and utilizing the feedback you’ve given us, we are making targeted refinements to the visual design of Visual Studio 2013.


Visual Studio 2013 (click to enlarge)


Thank you for all of the feedback you provided about Visual Studio 2012.

We encourage you to try the Visual Studio 2013 Preview and then share your feedback. We are committed to continuing to improve the Visual Studio user experience based on your feedback.

There are several convenient ways to provide feedback:

  • If you have questions or comments about this post, please use this blog’s Comments.
  • If you run into something frustrating (or pleasing) while you’re using the VS 2013 Preview, there is a new Send a Smile feedback tool in the upper right of the Title Bar.
  • If there is a specific feature or visual change you would like to see in VS, please use User Voice to propose it (or to vote on it if it has already been proposed).
  • If you run into a bug in the VS 2013 Preview, you can file it via the Visual Studio Connect site.




Eric Zocher – Director of Design, Developer Division

Short Bio: Eric has been at Microsoft for seven years. He led the Expression Studio team until last year and then joined the Developer Division’s User Experience team as its director.

Leave a Comment
  • Please add 8 and 3 and type the answer here:
  • Post
  • Please give us a tick box to disable the typeconerver that forces the text in the menus to uppercase.  

  • You already had a perfectly fine interface. These changes are just tinkering with the new style. I'd still prefer to have the entire VS2010 interface back.

  • Great work guys !!

    I must admit that I criticized the soon release, because a ton must be fixed on VS2012 yet, but looking at build conference, I see that VS2013 is a good product that fix a ton on 2012, something like 2012.5, I downloaded it and I'm glad about performance and usability :)

    Looking at the diff of some things u are going the right direction !! u sharpen a lot (useless) things in vs2012, now, all looks cleaner and don't disturb at all :) Thanks for that !!

    Keep the good work comming

  • That's all this is, trivialities.  Fix the bugs, dammit!

  • I made VS 2012 usable by importing the icons from VS 2010. A little faux 3D makes a huge difference on folder icons. You've restored a little bit of color, but they still look flat. It seems you're willing to give a bit of ground on color, and are attempting to restore a bit of contrast, but are standing your ground on the general Metro theme, and I find this puzzling - have you read the same feedback about VS 2012 I have?

  • Well I do not know much but all these action seems fantastic.

  • Please bring back the original solution explorer...just making the folder icons brown doesn't cut it. It was perfect in 2010, why can't you just admit the current one looks awful and revert instead of making incremental improvements for the worse?

  • Glad to see the return of a bit of color in VS, not because it makes things more beautiful but because it makes things more effective.

    My eyes have been trained for years to see folders as yellow in Solution Explorer, and while I got used(forced?!) to the filled black folder icons, I am glad to see them again yellow/brown (although I cannot explain how, but it seems to me that the folder closed/opened shape could be enhanced a bit).

    I like also the color categories Blue/Green/Yellow/Red, keep it up!

  • I don't like the solution explorer and other panes border. In VS2012 they have no border (pane border not controls). Remove them :( They look ugly especially on dark. :(

  • Can you re-look at TFS integration please?  In VS2012 there are just too many clicks to accomplish everyday tasks.

  • Not a fan of the brown folder icons.

  • I'll take the brown folder icons over black any day of the week. The less monochrome the better.

  • Why always go for these highly stylized, simplified, ugly Bauhaus style icons, they really do not help productivity. You are obviously putting one particular brand of esthetics over usability; the new UI is hard to navigate and confusing; key colors (such as yellow for a folder) cannot just be discarded like that. Ideally you would give the user a choice over new vs old icon sets (such as Toad does it) or even better finally allow styling the app via CSS (the way Mozilla applications have been doing it for years) - adding a userChrome.css or a proper Theme builder (including ability to swap out image resources) would alleviate all the pain. As always you are selling the user's helpnessless as a feature and then bask in the glory of your unwanted improvements. Feels broken.

  • The brown folder icon looks out of place.  I much prefer standard folder color, but of course this is much better than charcoal-gray.

    Why did you make the active window (like Solution Explorer) in the blue theme harsh yellow?  Why didn't you leave it the way it was in 2012 update 2?  This is what angers a lot of people...changing things like that when it was fine before.

  • Are the menus still UPPERCASE ONLY?  Mixed-case is better!!!

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