The Xbox One and Usability
Microsoft’s Xbox One has been out and available to the public for about 10 months at this point and is really just starting to hit its stride. It has certainly suffered its fair share of setbacks to get to this point, namely the controversy over Microsoft’s “always online” and used game policies (which were both reversed before launch), and is undeniably well behind its main competitor, Sony’s PlayStation 4, in sales, but let’s set all of that aside for now. Let’s just take a look at the Xbox One on its own, and see how well Microsoft made their “all in one box” for consumer’s living rooms actually work. Let’s attempt to answer the question “Is it usable?”.
In my mind, the biggest problem that the Xbox One suffers from is inconsistency. From trying to provide a familiar user experience for customers familiar with the Xbox 360, to the UI within apps, all the way to simply not working all the time, the Xbox One has a major inconsistency problem. Microsoft settled on their Metro interface for their gaming consoles a few years ago with the launch of the NXE: New Xbox Experience. It was a complete overhaul to the operating system, and they fine-tuned it over the next few years. The operating system on the new Xbox One is very similar to that on the Xbox 360, but is just different enough to be fairly problematic. Microsoft spent years getting customers accustomed to the user experience of their consoles, and then introduced a slightly different way of doing things on the new console. Where you used to be able hit the Xbox button on your controller and find shortcuts to anything you could need to do on the machine (launch games/apps, change settings, interact with online friends, etc.) now it just takes you back to the home screen and leaves you on your own to figure out what to do from there, which is frequently tough to do.
Obviously I’m not against the idea of upgrading and updating operating systems; it’s something that obviously needs to happen. That said, it needs to happen in ways that actually increase the ease of use, not in ways that actually make it more difficult for users to accomplish their most common tasks. Basically, changes to the system should add to the overall usability of the console. Moving beyond the operating system of the console itself, the Xbox One suffers from inconsistency between its available apps. There are numerous examples I could pull from, but it’s the little annoyances that stand out the most in my mind. One specific example that I’ll use is the functionality of searching for content within an app (or even apps themselves). When you open up the Netflix app, for example, and choose to search for a specific show or movie it brings up an on screen text input “keyboard”. You start on the letter ‘a’ and can scroll right to go through the rest of the alphabet and numbers, and when you reach the end you go back left to enter in your next letter/number. Easy enough, right? Then you go into your Youtube app to watch that funny video your friend mentioned, pull up the search and see the same “keyboard”. Only this time once you reach the end, it wraps back around to start at the beginning.
I’m not necessarily saying one of those methods is better than the other (actually I will: wrapping around is the best practice here) but I will say that basic functionality like that needs to be consistent across the system. Yes, blame could be put on the shoulders of the app developers for this, but the onus is on Microsoft to set standards and ensure their content providers live up to them. Kinect has been marketed as one of the Xbox One’s biggest selling features, and rightly so. Who wouldn’t want to control their entire home theater setup by voice? And I won’t lie; it’s a very cool and fun feature. You really can control all (or almost all, as I’ll get to in a moment) aspects of the console via voice and your console can in turn control the other devices in your living room giving you the ability to do it all by voice. Want to turn up the volume on your surround sound receiver or TV? Just say “Xbox, volume up,” and the built in IR blaster will make it happen. Want to turn everything off when it’s time to go to bed? Just say “Xbox, turn off,” and it will shut down your whole home theater set up. That’s really cool, right? Well, yes and no. It’s amazing that you can do all of this by voice, but decidedly not amazing that it will only work about 90% of the time, which has been my experience with the console after 8 months. Maybe I’m just being too demanding of a consumer here, but if you’re going to advertise your console as having complete voice control, then it should work much closer to 100% of the time. My controller lives on the opposite side of the room from the couch, so when I have to get up and go grab the controller to do it the old fashioned way I get annoyed when I was told I would be able to do so via voice commands.
That actually brings up another user experience issue within the voice control aspect of the console. They advertise the ability to control your whole console via voice commands, and you can (when it works)…except for the entire settings section. You can navigate to the setting menus via voice, but once you get there you’re forced to switch to using the controller. What is the point of putting such an arbitrary limitation on one of the biggest selling features of the console? I just spent a while complaining about Kinect on the Xbox One, but now I’m going to turn that around a bit. They set it up as this big overarching voice control system that will allow you to control your entire home theater by voice, and it works 90% of the time. Think about that-you can control your TV, cable box, surround sound receiver, blu ray player, dvd player, and Xbox One console via voice commands, and it works 90% of the time! How incredible is that? It’s quite frankly an amazing feature-I just wished it worked more dependably. The verdict is still out on the Xbox One as a gaming console as it just doesn’t have a wide enough selection of games to accurately judge it off of, but it’s hard to deny that it’s a great addition to any home’s living room. The built in IR blaster works to control the rest of your devices so that your Xbox can send commands to them all. It’s like you now have a universal remote handy all the time-just say what you want to happen and it’ll happen! The cable integration is pretty awesome as well-you plug your cable box directly into the Xbox One instead of your TV and you have one less input to worry about on your TV or receiver, all you have to do is launch the TV app on your Xbox.
No device is ever going to be perfect, but that is what we should always be striving for. The bright side to all of the issues I’ve mentioned is that they’re things that can be addressed in future software updates. However, in the future Microsoft would do well to ask their customers (aka users) how they like the experience. The Xbox One offers a lot of wonderful features to anyone that puts one in their living room; it just currently suffers from an overall inconsistency issue that seriously detracts from the experience of using it.
-Cameron Duggins, User Experience Analyst, Usability Sciences