11 Dec 2012

Microsoft has just released their newest Office product, Office 2013.  Usually we think of something newer as being better, but in this case not entirely.  As I did briefly in our last podcast, in this article I’m going over some shortcomings of the new user interface (UI) of Office 2013 in greater detail.  This isn't an overall review on the product, rather just a warning if you are switching to Office 2013.  The warning is related to visual experience that you will get when using Office 2013, particularly that of Lync 2013 and Outlook.

Outlook 2013

I’m not the first person to notice the shortcomings of the Office 2013 UI redesign.  Some have stated that the white background and its overall lack of contrast and brightness has “caused their eyes to bleed.”  That may be a bit extreme but compared to past versions of Office, it does feel like a step back, UI-wise, however there are some users who claim they have had eye problems after several weeks of using Outlook and Word for hours per day.  This is evident after reading through some of the Microsoft forums.  The new color scheme is quite bad overall and you have limited options in trying to change it.  Outlook by default a low contrast white scheme which can be hard on the eyes and hard to tell what is what.  That is, there is no clear distinction between functional areas like user controls and system controls.

At times, using Outlook feels like a sea of text and buttons with no clear distinction between sections.  The contrast from one area to another is poor and combined with the white background its downright appalling, at least to me, if not a whole host of others.  If you dig around online, you’ll see similar complaints on this UI nightmare.

Outlook 2013:  A Waste of Space

Click to Enlarge
Click to Enlarge

What’s almost worse, is the way Microsoft has aligned parts of the UI.  They’ve done it in a way that results in tons of extra white space in both Outlook and Lync.  See the image above, I’ve highlighted actual content with blue boxes, which shows the contrast of wasted space to content.

Let’s take a closer look.  See how the large the top are of the message preview is?

Even more, by default Office 2013 defaults to a view that shows you a one or two line preview of each email in the email listing.  This consumes a ton of space, leaving you with the preview window at the bottom which pretty much only allows you to see who the message is from and not any of the message details that are more important.  Thankfully there is a way to turn this feature off. 

TIP:  If you go to View.. Message preview, you can change it from 1 Line to “Off” per the image below:

You can also see the example below of the waste of space that occurs between the main group of messages and the message preview.  These two gaps alone increase the white space on the overall view:


One way we can mitigate this preview pane issue is to not use the preview pane at all.  But if you are like me, I prefer having the preview pane visible. 

TIP:  The other method of giving yourself more preview space is to hide the ribbon bar by clicking the upward arrow on the bottom right of the bar and hiding it.  You can expand it and right click certain buttons like “Delete” which gives you the option to “Add to quick access toolbar.”  So your ribbon is gone and the top area shrinks nicely, giving you more space:

TIP:  One other thing that helps a little on the contrast issue, but not much, is to go to File, Options and set the background to “None” rather than clouds.  Then try setting the scheme to “Dark Gray”

This results in this color scheme, which helps a little but doesn’t fix a lot of the major issues, particularly the sea of white space, it still exists, its just more focused:

And compare to before:


Lync 2013

Lync is a whole other beast of wasted UI space.  Now when you enter a group conversation with people you are presented with a window like below:


Not only do we have the typical Office 2013 waste of space issue, but the default conversation view, forces you to have “icon/picture” views of each person in the group.  This means that at a glance you can’t tell who is in your group chat unless you know what picture represents that person.  In addition, the large area at the top for images takes up a ton of white space in this view, not to mention the other conversations to the left (mind you though, having all chat conversations from one window is nice, but they could have done a better job of arranging this mishmash of UI elements).

To get past the conversation icon/picture view, we can click the people symbol on the bottom right and the view becomes the following:


Sure, now we can see the names of the people in the conversation, but to do so, we must make that top section much larger, or use the scroll bars on the right to see the full list of names.  This is highly inefficient.

Other Issues

A few other things that I’ve noticed include a laggy cursor when you are typing emails, which is really an animation effect by the Office product.  As you type the cursor doesn’t seem to advance fluidly.  It feels like you are typing on a computer from the early 90s.  This can be seen in many of the Office apps such as Outlook, but its even more noticeable in Excel.  Office also has transition animations turned on, at times these feel laggy as well.  You can turn these off however.  Even switching mailboxes or folders in Outlook often lags a bit, taking 3-5 seconds to show the folder, while at other times the folder just pops up as expected.

Also, at times if you switch folders, the sort order seems to change for emails in that folder, placing newer items at the top of the list instead of the bottom, assuming you had it sorted by descending order (oldest date at the top).

There is also the issue of the preview for emails and lync messages (called "Toasts").   There is no way to turn this off by default.  You also do not have the ability to delete an email via the "Toast"/"Preview" for a given email like you could in the past.

The Tech-Stew Take Home

While Office 2013 certainly has other nice enhancements such as the Skydrive integration and better workflow with things like synching across devices, it comes with a price.  The price is the UI design.  Frankly one would have assumed some better thought could have went into this design and with some user feedback during the beta phase.  After all, it is the UI design that we look at and experience more than any other feature in Office on a day to day basis.  There are several driving forces that have likely played a role in the overall design of this new UI. 

One possible reason for the UI design is the actual “social-centric” integration features particularly that of image place holders for contacts.  If not for the images, as in the email preview window, less space would be consumed.  There isn’t an obvious way to simply remove that portion of the preview in this case, though.  There is no social button to toggle social-centric views on or off.

Another possible explanation may be the touch integration that is now part of the Office suite.  Perhaps they felt giving extra space around the edges makes it easier for users with a touch-based interface.  You would think that this space would dynamically shrink if not on a touch-based device and that maybe the default mode was already set to touch?  Not the case.  For instance, if you click the Touch command button and switch to touch, you get even more white space.  This perhaps, is the price that is paid by trying to standardize an interface over many different device platforms with Microsoft and their Metro push. 

The hope is that Microsoft will allow the ability to apply certain Office UI themes to the software package, as they have in the past.  If this ability occurs, then some of the contrast issues may go away, but the white space efficiency issues are likely to remain.  As a consumer you should be aware of what you are getting before you are too far invested in the product.  Hopefully, on the UI side of things, this article shed some light on what you will experience as you dive into the world of Office 2013.  So what is everyone's opinion on the 2013 UI?

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