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 6 and 2 and type the answer here:
  • Post
  • Unfortunately, I agree with almost every single comment that's been posted here (& elsewhere). What is sorely needed is the ability for us to be able to make choices (via options/settings) that suit the way that WE want to work, not have dramatic (& unpopular) "company-wide" design decisions FORCED on us. What use is it to have a whole range of products that all "look the same", if nobody wants to use them?

    You haven't even added in the functionality of the MS-created theme editor extension. Adding one extra theme is not giving people true choice. I hope this will change in the final release.

  • Well, I like these new colored icons. The colors make it much easier to find an icon without having to decipher its form. The coloring system is concise. Keep it!

  • How does it look on Windows 7 because VS2012 looks like someone put a pink door on a white car on Win 7. As others have said like with Windows 8 you took away choice as far as the UI is concerned and took the "we know best so this is what we are going to force you to use" option. If I am spending all day coding I don't want to be constantly distracted by a poorly thought out UI.

  • Yellow folder icons, not brown.

  • Looks like every effort is justified to ignore your customers, isn't it?

    Throw that away and bring back the Visual Studio 2010 GUI!




    registry settings for something so horrid..


    Seriously Eclipse gets better while VS gets worse.. much like win 8 metro desktop failure experience.

  • Visual Studio 2012 UI designer should be fired!!!

  • Depressing design, like in concentration camp. For complete design style consistency, you need a large sign in top of window: <h1>"ARBEIT MACHT FREI"</h1>.

  • Stilll doesnt come anywhere near to VS 2010. It was way way better compared to that of 2012 and 2013 . I rather have those colours and icons back from 2010 than 2013 :(

  • I like the folder icons brown, and I'm glad your team saw the sense of returning some color to them.  Also I agree with many of the other fixes, particularly those that return some distinguishability to the icons and "areas".

    As a developer, Visual Studio is my desk, my work environment.  What y'all did with the radical VS 2012 redesign was (a) remove everything from my desk and replace it with "modern style" stuff, and (b) prevent me from fixing all of the changes you condescendingly made "on my behalf".  Is it any wonder people (like me) got angry?

    I will not buy VS 2012, but will stick with VS 2010 until the UI (my work area) is restored to my satisfaction.

  • Bottom line on the icons is the dark-gray ones are only bearable on the light theme.  The moment you use the Blue theme or make your own (where the background of the toolbar is a somewhat dark color), they're hard to distinguish.  This is one reason why the classic 3D color ones work well...they're distinguishable when placed on many different colored toolbar backgrounds.

    So...yes, you can use the theme editor extension, but what's point if a big chunk of the icons look terrible with your theme??

  • There is no point letting people post comments if simply ignore them.  

    Please listen. Get rid of the horrid all caps menus, or give us a proper option in the environment area of settings.

  • I hope that this time around Microsoft will listen to user input on these changes.  When the current UI was introduced the grey and flat visual theme received overwhelming negative input, at least on this blog.  Yet it was released like that anyway.  Later changes were superficial at best.  I've been using VS2010 for the last 2 years, and it's a much better UI than 2012.

    What I am seeing so far is an improvement at least, enough that I will download and try the preview.  I will say this: you need to get rid of the all caps menu, I'm not sure what you were thinking when you introduced that!  It makes me think I'm in windows 3.0 again.  Your users are using registry changes to fix it, that should tell you something.

  • It is time to change the UI team and contract the services of the adobe team or check other user interfaces like solid work, Autocad, etc . It is obviously the UI team is reinventing the wheel.

  • GET BURNING IDEAS...with new perspectives.i like it bt would like to see more flexes.

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