For Microsoft, Beauty Is In The Eye of the ‘Controller’

Published on April 14, 2020

“Important.” “Landmark.” “Genuine and meaningful.” This is just some of the praise received by the most lauded and brilliantly designed hardware device that you may have never heard of.

In the design community, there is almost unanimous consensus that Microsoft’s $99 Xbox Adaptive Controller is one of the best-designed industrial products of our time, with the potential to inspire and impact the future of how humans interact with physical products. Perhaps you’re searching the Internet right now for an image of this wonderous design — I will confess part of me hopes you are disappointed when you see it because it is a beautiful product with an utterly utilitarian look. It isn’t beautiful design because of its form, which is simply what it needs to be and nothing more; it’s a beautiful design for what it enables, and perhaps more importantly, who it enables.   

The Adaptive Controller sprang from a Microsoft employee hackathon in 2015, where designers were challenged to remove barriers to playing video games for veteran amputees. Launched in 2018, the controller brought a world-class gaming experience to the roughly 1 billion of us who have some form of permanent or temporary condition that makes using traditional gaming controllers uncomfortable or impossible. 

Ability is continuously in flux, and the devices we rely on should reflect that. The Xbox Adaptive Controller’s principles of user adaptability and a more holistic definition of “experience” set a new standard for industrial design — leaving behind lessons that will hopefully influence the world of industrial products to come.

Adapt for Ability 

Most gaming controllers assume that the user has two hands and two thumbs that can be used for long periods, which is not a reality for many people. Rather than asking the user to adjust to – or not participate in – a world designed for differently-abled people, the Adaptive Controller gives the user the ability to adapt their world and experience in ways that work for them.

The device’s central feature is 19 separate 3.5mm jacks that enable the controller to act as a hub for any number of more specialized inputs, from sip-and-puff straw controllers to bite controllers and specialized prosthetics. The first 17 jacks are for all the discrete buttons on a regular gaming controller, and the additional two jacks and USB ports can be configured as needed. Details like the inclusion of mounting holes on the underside of the device allow the controller to connect to beds, wheelchairs, tables, and stands.   

This “adapt-ability” is the heart of the design’s success. It enables an unimaginable number of configurations for an incredible amount of individual situations. Instead of designing for the user, it empowers the user to design with the product or experience.

Inclusion in Every Step of the Experience

Gamers know that the excitement of the brand experience and thrill of unboxing are arguably as important as the functionality of the product; however, these delightful moments are often disregarded in devices designed for people with disabilities. Not with Xbox. The Adaptive Controller’s style fits effortlessly into the industrial design language of the recent Xbox, with matching white devices and peripherals. Microsoft took care to avoid stigmatizing or “othering” design choices – a stark contrast to a market traditionally dominated by inclusive devices that look overly medical, overly home-made, or simply child-like. Gamers of all abilities are empowered to engage with tools that share the same sophisticated design language and brand identity.   

The controller’s packaging is also one of the most considerate and exquisite examples of packaging design in recent memory: just one finger is needed to unpack the device entirely. Large ring-tab tape pulls open the mailer box, giving way to a cloth strap to open the controller packaging itself. The controller sits on a card inside the box with a loop so users can slide the controller out of the box, and the card does double duty, providing simple quick-start instructions for setting up the device. This thoughtful sequencing and inclusive detail ensures users of all abilities can share in the delight of receiving and unboxing the device.

Beauty Is in the “Edges”

Technology design has often excused its exclusion of specific populations as “edge cases,” or rarities outside the norm that don’t deserve attention or budget, yet designing precisely for those “edges” improves the universal product. Like the wheelchair slope on a sidewalk used by cyclists, parents with strollers, and the elderly, more inclusive design creates better experiences for everyone. 

In a time of diminished corporate trust and cynicism in the technology industry, the Adaptive Controller is an excellent example of Microsoft putting its purpose – to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more – at the forefront of its strategy. This is especially poignant, considering none of its competitors are thinking this way. I’m eager to see our industry embrace this kind of responsible, inclusive design as we create the devices and experiences of tomorrow.

This article originally appeared in Forbes.

As a co-CEO of strategy and design firm Artefact, Rob Girling is responsible for setting the company’s strategy and vision: using the power of design to make change and do good.

Rob’s design career spans some of the leading agencies and design brands in the world, such as Apple, Microsoft, IDEO and Sony. Rob spent10 years at Microsoft,obtaining severalpatents andmaking significant innovative contributionstoMicrosoft Office and Microsoft Games, eventually becoming Design Manager for the user interface, brand, and user experience of Windows XP. Rob obtained his Masters degree in Interaction Design from the Royal College of Art in London, graduating with distinction.

Rob is a recognized thought leader who has shared his point of view on responsible design at conferences around the world, including SXSW, IxDA, World Forum for Democracy, DMI Design Leadership Conference, and more. 


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