Microsoft’s broader Xbox strategy for the last few years has involved a strong focus on hardware, resulting in last year’s cheaper Xbox One S and the upcoming release next month of the more powerful Xbox One X. But another long-term focus within the Xbox division, one that can’t be solved with faster components, is making the device easier and more pleasant to use. That’s the job of software and an ever-changing user interface, and it’s what Chris Novak, Microsoft’s head of Xbox design, spends his days thinking about.
“When you talk to customers and ask them what they want,” Novak tells me, “when you line all of those things up, they’re dramatically in conflict.” He says building software to please tens of millions of users, given how drastically gaming has changed in just the last three to four years, is a daunting task. There’s no way to please everyone, but Novak and his team think there might be a path toward making more people happier with the Xbox experience over time than ever before.
We’re in a conference room at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington headquarters, having just gone over a number of new concepts the design team is working on to improve the Xbox One’s core software. For Novak, designing the Xbox One dashboard — the main hub of the system and the software layer users interact with most outside playing games — is as personal a process as decorating someone’s home. It almost always involves conflicting ideas, and one person’s preferences are often at odds with another’s.
“It’s just as intimate as if you were to walk into somebody’s home and look at their furniture and living room and choose what to have around them,” Novak says. “You can pick one of those and be wrong for a majority of users. We know that change, any change, carries with it a muscle memory tax and a cognitive load tax.” When in doubt, he adds, you might have to just leave it alone. But to change something critical, and to do so drastically, “you really have to have confidence… that the end state of this is going to be better for the majority of users.”
Novak is talking about the challenges of designing one thing for many people, but he’s also speaking personally to the experience of overseeing the Xbox One dashboard. It’s no secret that the Xbox One’s software has been controversial since the device’s 2013 launch. The interface has often befuddled users, burying tasks under submenus and uneconomically using large swaths of space to feature memory-hogging images. The design has fluctuated over the years, borrowing aesthetically from the company’s Windows Metro tile interface and the dated, boxy design of the Xbox 360 dashboard.
Compared with the more spartan software underlying Sony’s PlayStation 4, which uses only two rows to separate system-level items like chat and settings from your recent games and apps list, the Xbox One has felt caught between its ambitions as a media hub and its responsibility as a game console. It is very much a product of the push-pull relationship Microsoft has had with its original vision for the Xbox One as a Trojan horse for the living room. That direction has shifted over the years, as Xbox chief Phil Spencer realigned the business to focus more on hardware advancements and software compatibility with Windows 10.
Microsoft seems to recognize these shortcomings, as it’s changed the core design of the Xbox One dashboard a number of times in the last four years. More recently, the company unveiled another refresh based on its new Fluent Design language, due out sometime later this month. Now, the core of the new Xbox One dashboard is customization, with Microsoft handing users the tools to render the interface as complex or as simple as they like. (Plus, the company is adding a much-needed new light mode for those who like brighter, whiter software themes.)
The Xbox software design team doesn’t look at this choice as a waving of the white flag, or a concession that it just doesn’t know what users want. Rather, they see it as the natural evolution of where it decided it must go. “The easy choice is to only satisfy the hardest of the hardcore, or the newest of the new. Both of those things are bad,” Novak says. “We needed to build a UI that was flexible, that could really bring the right thing to gamers, and give them the right way to tell us what they wanted.”
Complicating the whole task, as Novak points out, is the fact that game consoles have changed dramatically since the days of the Xbox 360, when a majority of mainstream consumers first began connecting these devices to the internet. Gone are the days when the boxes under our TVs were used almost exclusively for games. Starting more than a decade ago, game consoles morphed into do-everything media and entertainment hubs.
Now, when factoring in even newer services and viewing habits like live game streaming and the fragmented pay-TV app ecosystem, game consoles are tasked with handling a dizzying number of starkly different software objectives, each with their own specific design needs. Contrast the UI specificities of having an onboard 4K Blu-ray player and a video streaming app drawer with a web browser, a digital storefront, a cloud save, and file and hard drive management system, and you have a dashboard that feels like it needs all the complexities of a full-blown PC. In many ways, an Xbox One already is a PC: the console now runs a slimmed-down version of Windows 10.
However, the Xbox design team doesn’t think of the device’s software as if it should or needs to be as complex and capable as a full-blown desktop OS. That runs the risk of confusing users, obfuscating obvious tasks and features, and creating a bogged-down mess of software that makes it more difficult and time-consuming to get to where you need to go and do what you want to do. Instead, the Xbox One runs Windows 10, but a stripped-down version of it, tailored to what Microsoft thinks users want and designed to be navigated quickly with a controller, not a mouse and keyboard.
“We don’t have an agonistic relationship to the content,” says John Snavely, Microsoft’s console design lead. “We have a passionate relationship to games, gaming, media. We know our users are very passionate.” Snavely says the dashboard’s framework is not meant to treat games, Netflix, Twitch, or any number of other apps and services as identical. Rather, it’s about anticipating a player’s needs, he says, and letting that player make choices that help inform that system so that its algorithmic decision-making gets more specific and more accurate over time.
“It’s about an experience that’s not competing for every hour of your day,” Snavely adds. “It’s competing for the hours of the day you spend having fun. It sounds like a constraint, but it’s really a way for us to get more deeply involved.” This is how Microsoft arrived at its most recent dashboard refresh, with the heavy focus on customization and what Novak and Snavely refer to as “blocks,” which are rectangular design pieces that will change from game to game and be customizable depending on how a player likes to interact with that particular title.
“When you look at what people respond to in any kind of interface or feed, the thing they respond to most of all is being able to mute things,” Novak says. “There are some things they just don’t ever want to see.” Now, users will pin items to a top row on the home tab of their Xbox One, choosing which items get surfaced first instead of relying on software to make those choices.
“Then there’s the question of how does that block represent a game over the period of time,” adds Snavely. “How do I customize it through use? Even if you and I play the same game, we’ll play it differently. What we’re trying to engender here in the UI is the ability to make those distinctions.” The team is still working out to what extent users will be able to customize the home screen and the blocks that populate it. Early screen renders, provided to The Verge, showcase the ability to have the software prioritize and surface a list of your friends playing the title, achievements, or live streams, among other items, all based on your preferences and how complex you decide to make that game’s block.
Ultimately, Microsoft wants the Xbox One’s dashboard to not only be fast, simple, and customizable, but for it to learn from the choices you make. To illustrate the point, Novak introduces a hypothetical. “There’s a game that’s fallen out of your most recently played list and your friends are piling into it. With today’s UI, you would not know that,” he says. But over time, as you teach the Xbox One what you like, the goal is to have flag that activity and direct you toward the fun. “That’s our intent,” Novak says, “to make sure you’re aware of the things you would enjoy.”