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 5 and 6 and type the answer here:
  • Post
  • Need 2010-icons back.

  • Make a theme "2010" with blue color scheme and classic true-color icons. Let all modernistic art be in "white", "black" and other themes only.

  • I actually think this is a step in the right direction.  If you want the 2010 icons back, google and use the Visual Studio Icon Patcher.  It's been the thing that made VS2012 useable for me.  I welcome the addition of color and contrast in VS2013.

  • The ALL-CAPS menus are indeed very ugly and unnecessary...

    The flat icons still left much to be desired even in VS2013 - this style works only for large icons, not for icons this small, where each visual clue helps.. The icon style in Windows 7 / Aero went in the right direction - this new "Metro" style works only on phones and tablets - nobody is using Visual Studio on a touch screen.

    Just offer the option to use the VS2010 to make everybody happy.

  • I overal like the changes, though I too believe that the folder icon's color is not great and I preferred the previous black style. The like the idea that only significant artifacts should be colored, and since folders are mainly organizational and not functional, I believe a gray would serve them better.


  • I think folder color should be based on the palette of visual studio which is violet, so the design should be balance.

  • >If you want the 2010 icons back, google and use the Visual Studio Icon Patcher.  It's been the thing that made VS2012 useable for me.

    To make VS useable, you suggest me to violate the license agreement and make an unauthorized changes to system files? There is no other option?

  • The ALL-CAPS menus are very ugly and add more color to the icons please!!!!

  • Lowercase menus are for professionals.


  • >Lowercase menus are for professionals.


    All this reconstruction of design, making VS look like facebook, - for making VS popular among teenagers and housewives. Who cares about professionals?

  • This is definitely better.

    Now you need to revert the New Project/New Item icons (they can be more colorful than other icons since you only see them when the dialog is open).

    Some projects file icons are still bad. Remove the document rectangles. Look at the .cs icons - they have no rectangle. Xaml icon should be like that too.

  • Visual Studio is not a metro app, so it should stop pretending to be. It's a productivity app that should put usability above everything else. Just admit VS2012 was a mistake and revert back to VS2010 design (you're slowly getting there anyway, how many more years do we have to wait?).

  • Could you bring back the old style of VS 2010 and remove the UPPER CASE in menus? Thanks.

  • If we assume that "Modern UI" is a given, I think these changes are a positive thing. There is no place where I feel they're a downgrade to VS2012 and I complain a lot about the UI.

    Having said that, I still think this "Modern UI" kick is still a downgrade. Developer tools are not a place to experiment with the UI, especially not on such a fundamental scale. We use these applications to get work done and changing the UI (even if it is "for our own good," which I would argue is not the case here) is a barrier to getting work done. This is the opposite of providing value. There needs to be some value on the other side in order to offset such a significant change.

    I contend that this still does not exist from the user side. It might be easier to maintain from the developer side, which translates to benefits in terms of getting new features in, sure. But that's now how it's marketed. It's marketed as for the users so there can be a "consistent experience" when we don't want an experience consistent with Windows 8. Windows 8 might work great on touch, but that's not where we do work, so there's no value there - and since a feature starts off at -100 and needs to be justified, I'm curious at where the 100+ came from.

    In the same vein, I definitely think that "emphasizing the content" was the incorrect approach in an integrated development environment, where the clear purpose there is the integration and not the code. If you just wanted to code, there are plenty of things that fill that need. The IDE is about bringing very common development tasks into the fold and accounting for them. The "Modern UI" fundamental of "emphasize the content" is in direct conflict with one of the fundamentals of an IDE.

  • Today at BUILD we announced the availability of Visual Studio 2013 and Blend that brings forward significant advances for apps for Windows 8.1 authoring XAML based Windows Store.

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