Reading in Word 2013

Today’s post is written by the program managers who worked on the reading features in the latest version of Word. Who are we?  Michelle Lisse focused on the overall Reading Mode experience, Alyshia Olsen represents the all new object zoom, Peter Frem headed up the newly improved navigation pane and Amir Mehrabian is responsible for the resume reading feature.

One of the things Word has always excelled at is content authoring, but there’s more to a document than just writing, reviewing and collaborating. Historically, many documents were received and read in a paper form, but the increasing ubiquity of digital devices has led to a world in which many documents never even reach a printer. Word has long had tools tailored for reading, but this release of Word we wanted to go even further to improve the modern consumption experience.
As we worked on the new reading experience, there were a few high level design themes that emerged:

  • Incorporate the goodness from traditional paper reading
  • Embrace technology where it improves the experience
  • Keep a laser focus on the core scenario

With those ideas in mind, let’s take a look at what we built.

A new layout for the digital world

The first problem we had to tackle was layout. What does it mean to read on a digital device and how does it compare to the traditional paper experience? Being the reading feature crew, it was only natural that the first thing we did was to hit the books do a bit of research.
There were two important pieces of data that really set the stage for the new Column Layout. It turns out it’s easier to read and retain information that is laid out in pages than it is when the text is in a continual column of text.  The natural page breaks give each piece of content a point in space, which makes it easier to remember later on.

The other key concept was line length. If a line is too long, the user gets distracted or lost before the end of the line, but if the line is too short the line breaks end up distracting from the content. But, for any given font there tends to be a sweet spot that, much like baby bear’s porridge, is just right.
In reading mode, we combine this knowledge into a flexible layout that is customized to fit your screen and your reading preferences. We take the original document and divide it into a series of columns arranged in a horizontal strip. Each column is sized to hit that optimal line length based on the current font and window size.
The result ends up looking like this:

Screenshot of reading mode in Word 2013

In this layout, you navigate horizontally through the content using the large paddles on the left and right sides of the window. Alternatively, you could choose to move around with the mouse wheel, arrow keys or swiping your finger across a touchscreen. We also added a scroll bar to the bottom so you’ll know exactly where you are in the document, and you can jump around more easily.

Make it personal

We know nothing in life is ever one-size-fits-all, so we added in a bit of customization that you can set independently for each device you own.
The first is text scaling – rather than a purely optical zoom, we tied zoom level into the flexible layout. We recognize it’s a pain to scroll side to side with each line just because you wanted larger text. In reading mode, you adjust the text to the size you like and we automatically adjust the content to fit. Just grab the slider on the status bar and give it a go.

Screenshot of changing the text size in Word 2013 reading mode.

Second up is line length. Remember when I mentioned there’s a perfect line length for reading? It turns out, that perfect length still varies a little bit from person to person. So, under the View menu we added a “Column Width” feature that lets you make your columns a little narrower or wider. We still reflow the content based on your window and text size, but you may end up with a different number of columns.

What about images?

By now you might’ve noticed we talk a lot about optimizing text, but most documents are far more than just a stream of text. They’re often full of images, tables, charts and so much more. With the new column layout we also reflow the figures in your document so they’ll fit within the new layout.

Fitting figures into the columns makes the overall experience much easier to read, but sometimes you want a closer look at a complex figure. To do that, just double click, double tap or use the right click menu to zoom in on the object.

Screenshot of object zoom on a table in Word reading mode

You get a focused view where you can see just that object at the size the author originally made it. To see your objects even bigger, just click on the magnifying glass to zoom in even more. Too big? Just hit the magnifying glass one more time and you’ll be back at the original size.

While you’re in Object Zoom, you can select text, copy, and highlight while looking at your object full size. When you’re done, just click on the dimmed out part of the window or press escape to get back to reading.

Custom page colors

Another feature we added to reading mode is custom page color. After a while, black text on a bright white background can really tire out the eyes. Since our goal is to make reading easier, we added in a couple other color modes to make it easier on the eyes.  The sepia color mode is a trick we pulled from long form novels – have you ever noticed that the paper tends to be a little less bright? That subtle change makes a big difference after a few hundred pages.

Screenshot of sepia page color in Word reading mode

The other color mode is inverse, and it comes in handy for low lighting conditions. Trying to get a little work done on that long late night flight? Switch over to inverse for an experience that’s both easier on your eyes and less distracting to the guy sitting next to you.

Screenshot of inverse page color in Word reading mode

We’ll even remember your setting on a per-device basis, so your desktop can be ready for those long work documents while your tablet is ready for easy reading on that next flight.

Paper layout

We know this new column layout may not be for everyone or every document – sometimes you really need to read a document in its original layout. For those cases, we’ve added a paper layout into reading mode, so you can see that familiar document in a distraction free environment. Just go up to the View tab, and choose Paper Layout from the Layout fly out.

Screenshot of paper layout in Word reading mode

Special reading tools

Reading is about so much more than just the layout, though. Writing a document requires a very different set of tools than reading one. So we started over from the beginning and thought about which of our existing tools the user needs for reading, and which new features we needed to build.

Reading indicatorScreenshot of Word navigation pane with reading indicator

Navigation is a big part of the reading process, both in terms of knowing where you are and in terms of getting to the heading you want. We wanted to make sure that the navigation pane was available wherever you needed it, Reading Mode included – you can find it in the view drop down or from the page/screen number in the status bar.

This release we took the navigation pane a bit further and added a reading indicator. As you’re going through a document, your current position will be highlighted in the navigation pane to show you exactly which heading or page you’re currently on. This will help you know where you are in the document, so you never get lost. You’ll also get the full benefit of this new feature in all modes in Word, not just in Reading Mode. Why don’t you go boot up Word and give it a shot – we’ll wait.

Did you try it? If so, what you just did to this blog post is another really common and important scenario that people frequently do…

Resume reading

Reading happens over time, you don’t always just sit and read a document until you are finished reading it. We knew this and we wanted to improve the transition between reading intervals and devices. You might want to read a document on your Windows phone or your Windows tablet, or maybe just on a traditional desktop or laptop.

We did a bit of user study to figure out what the most common solutions are that people use when they are reading a long book or document and transfer that to the digital world. The answer wasn’t really hard to find. It was as simple as a paper bookmark.

Screenshot of the resume reading calloutWe decided to reimagine the paper bookmark for the world of digital documents and the resume reading feature is the result of this effort. Resume Reading not only enables you to pick up where you left off in a document that is stored on your computer – for documents on SkyDrive it will also take your reading position whenever you go. So now you can start reading a document on your desktop and then continue reading the document on your laptop right where you had left off.

It is even easier to use than the paper bookmark; just close the document and we’ll do the rest of the work. You don’t even need to hit save! The next time you open the document we will show you the call out. One click or tap on it will take you right back to where you left off in the document.

Look up on the go

It’s great to be able to pick up where you left off, but sometimes, the big improvement is not having to leave in the first place. One big area where folks tend to lose their place is when they come across something unfamiliar in their document.
Let’s say you’re reading along and stumble over a word you’re just not familiar with. Having to pull out a paper dictionary would be very 1990’s. With the new reading mode, you can just right click on the term and choose “Define” to get a live definition of the term, complete with an audio pronunciation and synonyms.

Screenshot of the definitions callout in Word reading mode
Maybe the tricky word is actually in another language. For those cases, we put translate on the right click menu. You can quickly translate a single word or a longer passage without losing your context.
These tools should help to get past most minor speed bumps without losing where you are in the document. Sometimes, though, a definition or translation just isn’t enough information to establish context. For those problematic passages, we provide the “Search on Bing” to quickly get you to the web for further research.


Reading isn’t just about moving your eyes back and forth from line to line – for many documents it’s a process that involves a whole lot of note taking. If you’ve ever tried to buy a used textbook, you might know exactly what we mean. Reading a complex textbook is often a lot easier when you can highlight, add notes in the margin, and circle words.

It turns out that reading a complex document can also benefit from these tools, so we decided to add these in as well. Just select an interesting bit of text and pull up the right click menu to find a highlighter and commenting tool. With the new comment hints, you can leave little sticky notes for yourself right in the margin.

Why are you still reading here?

Well, that covers the new reading mode’s highlights (pun intended?). We hope you enjoy the new experience we’ve built for you. We’ve even turned it on by default for read-only files and attachments, since they’re not immediately editable. Of course, you can always get back to classic editable mode from the View drop down or with a quick hit of the esc key.

Photograph of (most of) the members of the feature crews who built the reading experience

All these features were brought to you by the members of the reading, object zoom, resume reading and navigation pane feature crews, most of whom are shown here.