Microsoft just redesigned Office to make it simpler — here are the biggest changes

Source: Microsoft
The new look of the online version of Microsoft Word.

Microsoft is redesigning its Office productivity apps to make them easier to use, as it faces stiffer competition from Google.

Microsoft said Wednesday it's refreshing Office 365 apps, including Word, Excel, Outlook and PowerPoint, in part so that they're more accessible for users with disabilities. The company is vastly reducing the size of the ribbon — the toolbar that for so many years has been loaded up with buttons.

Users who prefer the traditional ribbon can switch back with a single click.

The Office revamp comes two months after Google unveiled a redesign for Gmail. Google has been gaining traction in the business world with its suite of cloud-based office apps.

But Microsoft needs to keep up the momentum in Office 365, which remains one of the company's top growth opportunities. As part of the update, icons have been modernized so that their functions are more obvious. When working in a document, users can hover over comments to get them to change color, and on the Office website, they can hover over the name of a file to get it to virtually pop forward.

Proactive search

Microsoft is bringing the animations of its "fluent" design system to Office apps. Above the ribbon, the category of options you're currently viewing is underlined in blue, and the underline appears to move swiftly when you select a different category.

The changes aren't just cosmetic. Microsoft will also start letting you pin to the ribbon individual features that you use often, just as you can pin certain apps to the start menu in Windows.

The search box in the Office website and apps will automatically offer you suggestions of people and files based on your usage, and the search suggestions will vary by app.

Source: Microsoft
The new look for search in the online version of Outlook.

So far, the new features have been made available to a small group of paying users of Office.

Jon Friedman, Office's chief designer, told CNBC that the company is paying close attention to customer feedback so it can make the necessary refinements before pushing changes across different operating systems and applications. The new ribbon, for example, is coming to the web version of Word before it shows up anywhere else.

"We're very confident that it's a step in the right direction," Friedman said.

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