Office 2013 – One User’s First Impressions

Word 2013 Splash Screen

Office 2013 is out

I’ve been an avid Microsoft Office fan since Office 97 first hit the shelves. There’s a good reason Microsoft’s flagship office suite has commanded the number one position for well over a decade: it’s the best tool to get things done easily and quickly. Office leads, the others follow and this was even more true with the release of Office 2007 and its groundbreaking Ribbon UI.

Well that was then. I’ve just spent two weeks playing with the new Office 2013 preview release and I have to be brutally honest: I hate it. And that’s really disappointing because there are some really exciting and useful new features provided here that would be a lot of fun if only Microsoft could get off the Metro UI kick it’s on right now.

The Good Bits

Office 2013 introduces a number of new features. Singling out a few at random:

  • Comment tracking in Office allows comments from multiple authors to be tracked like a message board conversation.
  • Log in to Microsoft’s Online Services to take advantage of file storage, collaboration and editing documents anywhere via the browser
  • The File tab is simple while allowing you to open documents from almost any conceivable location easily (see image below)
The Office File Pane

File Pane in Office 2013


  •  Sometimes it’s the little bits of polish that make a nice impression. Changing the cell selection in Excel results in a subtle animation as the selected cell highlight shifts to your selection
  • You can import a PDF directly into Word, edit it as a Word document and then save it as either a Word doc or a PDF
  • Alignment guides for images and content, “resume reading” feature for picking up where you left off in a previously-closed document, share documents directly with your Facebook friends (for example), and so on and so on…

So this is by no means just some routine update because it’s been a couple of years and hey – we should probably do one. There’s a lot of really good stuff in there.


The Bad Bits

First and foremost I just can’t get past the UI. In case you’ve been living under a rock, Microsoft are pushing hard to compete with Apple and make sure that their Windows operating system translates well to not only desktop environments but tablets and phones too. This has brought an “authentically digital” UI / UX design approach which I’m largely supportive of – especially for touch devices. Where this falls down however is in areas of complex UI where there are a lot of buttons or commands. There was a huge outcry when Visual Studio 11 was released as a public beta utilising the new Metro UI and the Visual Studio team were forced to back-track and introduce more colour.

Office doesn’t suffer from the same monochromatic malady but in trying to accommodate more space for touch devices and leaning the iconography toward the Metro “simplicity” of design, my personal feeling is that this simplification has left the user with icons that are less meaningful and an overall UI that is devoid of almost any contrast, creating a uniformly bland experience that significantly reduces the intuitiveness and intent behind the homogeneous display.

Compare the two images below for Word; Word 2013 being the upper image.

Word UI Comparison

Word 2013 vs 2010

Is it just me? I’m a developer and power user after all, not a designer. Maybe I’m missing something. The reviews on the likes of PC World and ComputerWorld rave about the UI for example.

The other bug I’ve struck is trying to edit charts in Excel. Currently I’m unable to update any of the text components of any chart (e.g. titles, legend labels, etc). This is likely to be a bug that would be resolved before release to market in any case but it’s certainly an odd one.

Excel Chart Smart Tags

Excel Chart Smart Tags

Overall Office 2013 is a good release with enough compelling new features that I’d almost consider the upgrade but at the end of the day, I find the usability to have suffered such that using this new version just wouldn’t feel comfortable or natural the way Office 2010 or 2007 do.

I’d love to know if I’m on my own here or if your experience matches mine.


  1. Ryan

    I am with you. I have spent 2 hours trying to change the UI. It is to “bright” for me. In the age of 22″-30″ monitors, developers are trying to scale down to 8″-10″ tablets.

    IMHO, design Office for the desktop. Then make it work for the tablet or phone. Who would write a novel or 20 page essay on a tablet or phone?

    • I think that’s a fair comment. And to add balance to my own opinion, there are a LOT of people who are so in love with the look that they’re practically frollicking in the meadow singing “The hills are alive…”

      But I agree – the design might work for tablet but it doesn’t translate to the desktop. Having the ability to skin the Office UI would’ve been an absolute killer feature, IMHO.

  2. Den

    I’ve been playing with both Windows 8 (through the various Previews, and now the Enterprise RTM) and Office 2013. Windows 8 without the Start Menu is a dud on my notebook, so I installed Classic Shell – problem solved. Unfortunately there’s no such easy solution for that snow field of an interface in Office 2013. Unless Microsoft delivers several UI themes that will kill some of that brightness, I have a feeling that there will be a lot of people wearing sunglasses as they try to use Office 2013 on their notebooks and desktops. What _were_ they thinking when they designed this interface?

  3. Jim

    Well the UI is a train wreck. I really think MS is trying to really piss off their customers or they really want to lose market share very quickly not sure what they are up to but most all their stuff as of late SUCK + SUCK = FAT TURD

    • The thing is – what are you going to use instead? I’ve tried OpenOffice / Libre Office and their UI is only good if you still live in 1997. Failing that, your options are IBM Lotus Symphony (it’s still just Lotus Notes but with a nice new name), Google Docs (embrace our Google overlords. Give them all your data) or Corel Office (Oh, yeah! I remember them. I played their games on my Atari XE).

  4. Joe Bonifazi

    > Having the ability to skin the Office UI would’ve been an absolute killer feature, IMHO.

    I totally agree with Phil on that!!
    I was forced to upgrade to 2013 from 2010 a few weeks back. Here I am today, spending hours Googling for “skin for Office 2013″ instead of completing my work.

    I hated the ‘Ribbon’ and loss of customization ability when I was forced from 2003 to 2007. I hated 2007 so bad I jumped immediately to 2010 – just to get back some control. But 2013 is a train wreck as another poster put it.

    To add to the UI of the application — all the Office Suite apps have no visible title bar. All my other applications have a Title bar I can see and work with. In my Office Apps I have to visually search for a free space to click on. It is not even consistent within the app. Once you actually find the control for what you want to do, most of the dialog boxes are the same old code with a real title bar!

    AND — Is that window focused or not??? ( ie. Excel, File, Options, General, ‘Personalize your copy of MS Office”, Office Theme ) Mine is Dark Gray ( You only get 3 stinking lousy choices ) — but my ‘Title bar area’ is light gray at best, and the exact same color when the window is not focused. the only difference I can detect is a shawdow around the window when focused, but not maximized. With dual montiors my Office windows are almost always maximized in one of the monitors.

    What is not updated and most frustrating are those dialog boxes I mentioned earlier. You can not make them larger and the list boxes and text boxes are tiny and fit very little data. Yes I have a 24″ monitor and I am looking at a list box that shows me only 4 entries out of 100′s of choices!!!

    Hey M.S. I hope you actually listen to your customers. Update some of that 1990′s code and and give us a customizable skin — I want a title bar and an EASY way to create a button, with my own image, anywhere I want, tied to my own macros.

    LASTLY – when 2007 came out I read how the UI was much more “discoverable” — I don’t want to have to discover where the $#% a command is!! I knew them by “key stroke” heart in Office 2003 and earlier. How about a text window where a user can type in the command and Office finds it just like the “Search Programs and Files” works on the Start Button? Make some of those changes and people will be using Office rather then spending hours on the web looking for patches, fixes and add-ons to get around the bits they hate in your products.

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