I just recently upgraded to Excel 2016, and I was disappointed to see that you still can't see which cell is selected when you click on a different window.

When Excel is the active window, A6 gets a green outline to indicate that it's selected:

Window is active -- A6 is visibly selected

When Excel is not the active window (you click some other application window), A6 gets no selection graphics whatsoever.

Window is inactive -- can't tell that A6 is selected

In older versions of Excel (before 2013 I believe), selected cells used to get dimmed selection graphics. The dimming indicated that the window was inactive, but you could still tell which item was selected.

One obvious benefit of dimmed selection graphics is that, when you are referring to one document while working on another, they help you keep your place. If you have to click back on the source document to remind yourself where you left off, that adds unnecessary friction.

That said, this removal of selection graphics for inactive windows is seen not just in Excel, but throughout Microsoft Office, so I assume it's not just an accidental omission or oversight. Rather, it seems a purposeful decision.

This leads me to ask, Are there any solid user experience arguments for eliminating selection graphics for inactive windows?

My hunch is that this is just an example of taking flat design too far, but I'd definitely like to know if there are benefits I hadn't thought of.

  • Reduced cognitive load? ... I'm grasping at straws here. Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 19:06
  • There's a chance that the justification went something like this: "Testing has found that we add functionality X, cell (and other) highlight graphics are lost when the app isn't in focus. To maintain this behavior would require Y weeks and Z dollars. Is the value to the user enough to justify this expense?" And the behavior got cut in the balance.
    – dennislees
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 19:37
  • @dennislees, Wouldn't be surprised. It's the kind of thing that few users would probably complain about, but many would be subtly annoyed by without realizing why.
    – devuxer
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 19:52

1 Answer 1


I guess, the original question does not apply to this case because what they've done is a usability bug. It has nothing to do with flat design. The latter just gives you guidelines how to reduce visual clutter. In no way it limits the usability of the product. For instance, grid lines have a much bigger visual impact than active/inactive, but they haven't removed them.

That said, I guess, the guidelines are very simple: reduce the intensity of visual impact for inactive objects. Each application is different, designers can take various decisions, but the usability cannot be sacrificed.

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