We've just been upgraded from Office 2010 to Office 2013. There's the usual assortment of UI rejigs, most of which are either the modern trends (ultra-flat icons and UIs), fairly neutral, or easily customised. However, there's one change that really puzzles me and seems such bad UX that I think there must be something I'm missing, because I know Microsoft have a UX team. It relates to the program icons, as used on the Windows start menu and taskbar. For reference, here's a before and after comparison shot of the icons for the whole office suite:

Office 2010 icons (before):

Office 2010 icons

Office 2013 icons (after):

Office 2013 icons http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/thumb/9/9b/Microsoft-Office-2013-lineup.svg/500px-Microsoft-Office-2013-lineup.svg.png

The stylistic changes (from smooth gradients, rounded corners, unusual fonts towards stark colour-and-white, no 3D, simple line-art look, simple font) are fair enough. That's the current design trend, and I've accepted it even if I don't like it.

But my question is: why on earth would Microsoft move away from a wide range of easily-disambiguated colours towards a set of colours that are almost identical? Look at my taskbar now:

Office 2013 icons on my taskbar

I can't tell at a glance which of the three icons that's a "blue trapezium next to a white blob" is Outlook, which is Lync, and which is Word. Before, Word was a dark blue, Lync a light cyan, and Outlook a distinctive yellow: easy to identify at a glance, without needing to think about it at all.

I ask this question not to criticise, or rant, but because I know Microsoft are smart and they do a lot of UX testing. There must be some benefit to this colour scheme that I'm missing, but what is it?

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    I fail to see how the situations is worse now than it was. Look how close the old colors for Word, Visio and Lync are. Project? (there are two P's?) is also quite close. The set Outlook, Project and whatever S represents is also quite close, as are Excel and the two P icons. The only problematic choice may be the color change for Outlook. That application is used often at the same time as other applications including Word. I'd have chosen more different colors for these. Note that the outline of the icons, especially when viewed at a larger size, is now easier to distinguish than was before.
    – André
    May 1 '14 at 11:04
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    As you can see they dismissed all the "brighter" shades like yellow, orange or cyan. Maybe they knew that the new Windows 8 UI can have some bright background colors on which the icons may be seen.
    – Ray
    May 2 '14 at 9:38

I imagine it is because icons with distinctive outlines are easier to scan than ones that all have the same outline.

Having said that, I do see your problem with this change. Their existing user base has learnt to look specifically for the colour of the icon, e.g. outlook icon (yellowy) vs Excel (green). The switch will be difficult.

  • Interestingly enough the preview versions of the icons had solid color backgrounds (i.e., no distinctive outlines), there's a few early icons shown in this article: fastcodesign.com/1670308/…
    – jrh
    Aug 9 '16 at 12:54

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