Visual Studio 11's UI is sharper than you think

Microsoft thinks a drab new UI will help VS11 reach a broader audience. Developers disagree

Every time Microsoft makes a major UI change to one of its products, users complain. When Office 2007 introduced the ribbon UI, they complained. When the ribbon started worming its way into Windows, they complained some more.

Now Microsoft has gone and done it again. Only this time it isn't Office, Windows, or any of Microsoft's consumer products that's getting the face-lift. It's Visual Studio -- and early reactions from developers are, to be charitable, less than positive.

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Visual Studio 11, the latest incarnation of Microsoft's flagship IDE, entered public beta this week. But critics have been blasting it since at least a week ago, when a Microsoft blog post unveiled its revamped UI.

"After seeing the first screenshot of the toolbars, I actually thought this was some kind of April Fool's Day joke about making [Visual] Studio look like Windows 3.1, or an X11 desktop from 1995," writes one blog commenter. "Please do not foist this on us."

Among the changes in the new version: Boxes, separators, bevels, gradients, and shadows have been removed from UI elements. Icons and other graphic elements have been simplified. "Unnecessary" commands have been dropped from toolbars (including Cut and Paste). But the most controversial change is the elimination of virtually all color from the UI, creating a look and feel one commenter describes as "battleship gray."

You sank my battleship! Visual Studio 11's  drab gray UI has developers up in arms
You sank my battleship! Visual Studio 11's drab gray UI has developers up in arms.

"I predict the suicide rate among [Visual Studio] users will go way up when VS11 is released. The color scheme is just depressing," writes another commenter. (In fact, as I write this, searching the blog comments for "depressing" returns 40 hits, while "suicide" scores 8.)

Me code pretty one day
It may seem surprising that developers, of all people, would get so worked up over a UI change. After all, programming and ugly interfaces practically go hand in hand. (Done any Perl hacking lately?)

But developers are nothing if not loyal to their tools. For example, the debate between Emacs and Vi has raged for decades, and neither text editor has the kind of UI you'd want to teach to your grandparents.

Visual Studio developers are among the most loyal of all. Yet many have only just grown accustomed to the previous version, Visual Studio 2010, which also underwent a significant UI overhaul. The thought of climbing the learning curve again so soon could convince some developers to give the new version a pass.

Or not -- Visual Studio 11's biggest selling point is that it includes development tools for Windows 8, including the new, touch-centric Metro UI and its associated WinRT APIs. Developers who want to stay on the cutting edge of Windows technology have little choice but to come along for the ride.

Even if you don't care about Metro, there are plenty of other reasons to upgrade to VS11. The new release includes enhancements that touch all of today's hot buttons, from HTML5 to devops. It also bundles significant new technologies, such as Microsoft's Accelerated Massive Parallelism extensions for C++.

Trust us, we're from Microsoft
If Visual Studio 11 sells itself, why mess with the UI at all? One answer is that Microsoft knows what it's doing.

We've all heard people gripe about Office's ribbon UI. They've been griping about it for five years now. But evidence suggests the ribbon's detractors are just a highly vocal minority. Microsoft developed the ribbon based on extensive user testing, and converts (including myself) find it really improves their productivity. And it certainly hasn't hurt sales.

Similarly, Microsoft says the goals of the Visual Studio 11 UI revamp are to enhance productivity and reduce distractions, and it says it can back its decisions with real-world user research. For example, in one study, users were able to identify VS11's simplified icons much faster than those of Visual Studio 2010.

Dig a little deeper, though, and you'll find another motive behind the new interface: Professional developers and longtime Visual Studio users may resent the changes, but these core customers aren't the only audience Microsoft is hoping to woo with Visual Studio 11.

According to S. Somasegar, corporate vice president of Microsoft's developer division, the software tools marketplace has changed significantly over the last decade. "What used to be 10 million developers is now upwards of 100 million, spanning not only 'professional developers,' but also students, entrepreneurs, and in general people who want to build an app and put it up on an app store," he writes.

In other words, we're witnessing nothing less than the consumerization of Visual Studio. In much the same way that smartphones, tablets, and other consumer computing devices are revolutionizing IT, Microsoft sees the growing interest in consumer platforms as the key to the next phase of the software development tools market.

That's the story, anyway. On the other hand, it's hard to see how removing icons from toolbars will help neophytes get up to speed with Visual Studio, or how reducing the color platform to a bland, lifeless grayscale will convince anyone that software development is an exciting and vibrant career path.

Other commenters on the Visual Studio blog point out how VS11's monochromatic palette makes it harder to use for older developers and others with diminished eyesight.

The good news, at least, is that the new Visual Studio UI is not set in stone. According to Microsoft technical evangelist Brian Peek, leaving feedback on Microsoft's Visual Studio blog "will get it to the right people."

Beta programs aren't what they used to be, though. At one time, beta used to mean the software might actually change before it shipped. These days, it seems like little more than a euphemism for user focus groups. If that's the case for Visual Studio and Microsoft really wants to engage 100 million software developers, it's setting a lousy example.

This article, "Visual Studio 11's UI is sharper than you think," originally appeared at Read more of Neil McAllister's Fatal Exception blog and follow the latest news in programming at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.