When one stops to consider the infinite hours and now multitude of generations that have spent gripping a video game controller, one suddenly recognizes the ubiquity of the gaming controller as one of the great unheralded success stories of digital era industrial design. A tightrope of intricate electronics housed within an ergonomic form factor, controllers require a level of durability to withstand both the thrills of victories and agonies of defeat of its users few product match.
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In the current two horse race between video game consoles, Microsoft’s Xbox controller has proven itself every bit the definition of a durable design, both literally and figuratively. Every iteration reflects the evolution of gaming and gamer (this animated gif transitioning across 20 years of Xbox controllers illustrates these changes), and today we’ve entered the era of user customization.
Microsoft answered the call for customized customer experience with the launch of Xbox Design Lab, a project at initial mention implies some sort of skunkworks research from the gaming brand, a la Xerox PARC. But in reality, its purpose is more akin to product customization services like NikeiD with sneakers or Fender and guitars, introducing the option for gamers to put their personal stamp onto the Xbox Wireless Controller. With around 8 million different design combinations available, we asked Monique Chatterjee – a principal designer at Xbox representing 14 years with Microsoft across various categories – to explain the what, why, and how Xbox Design Lab came to fruition.
In a nutshell, what purpose does Xbox Design Lab serve in relation to the Xbox brand and gamer experience?
The idea behind Xbox Design Lab was inspired by gamers and their desire to customize their own Xbox hardware and experiences. One thing we all have in common is a desire to express ourselves – through the games we play, the clothes we wear, the activities we participate in and the products we love – so the primary goal for Xbox Design Lab was to create a seamless process where fans can design something unique to their interests, which is something we haven’t been able to offer before, and open up a new platform to enable dialogue with and between Xbox fans.
Now that we have our own online customization experience with Xbox Design Lab, we have a new platform to showcase products and a new way to connect with Xbox fans. Developing the end-to-end supply chain needed to span from online customization through custom manufacturing and direct shipping was a big undertaking. However, we now have the structure needed to enable lots of new creative opportunities in the future, and it has been amazing to see people sharing hundreds of thousands of controller designs through Xbox Design Lab.
It’s always a curiosity why certain colors may be offered for the body, but not available for detailing (e.g. D-pad). In regards to the color palette options available on the Xbox Design Lab website, why those colors?
The goal for the design team was to come up with a balanced palette that offers a variety of colors, but is also attractive to the eye. We have a really diverse fan base so we picked a large variety of colors, and there are more than 8 million possible color combinations to choose from. We wanted to give users the option to match controller with a personal preference or modeled after their favorite color – it’s really about having options for everyone.
I was told your background before joining Microsoft and the Xbox team wasn’t quite as technical as one might assume for a UX designer…that your natural inclinations reveal an artistic side.
I had a pretty balanced interest in academics, as well as painting and sculpture in high school. When I looked around at college programs, I discovered Industrial Design and immediately fell in love with the idea of creating functional sculpture. While going to school for Industrial Design at Rochester Institute of Technology, I worked in a local model shop helping to hand make product models. I worked as a consultant for 7 years before joining Microsoft, mainly in Boston at Altitude Inc. and in Chicago at HLB.
My heart was really into the process of thinking deeply about a consumer and making something by hand that caters to their needs. Xbox was a client of mine at HLB back in 2004, and I had an interest in learning about the world of product design beyond the subset of what happens at a consulting firm. I found out about an open design position at Microsoft involving the design of ergonomic mice via a hand-carving process and jumped at the opportunity.
I spent 7 years in the PC hardware space and eventually led both the mouse and keyboard lines at Microsoft from a design perspective, creating some pretty cool products like the Arc mouse and keyboard [shown above]. From there, I decided to go all in with a lifestyle and entertainment focus, and joined the Xbox group. I’ve basically come full circle.
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So taking into account this full circle and your background in art, what has the the transition and process been, considering the differences inherent in the requirements, execution, and expectations between different consumer categories? And between your artistic side and your designer project goals…serving the goals of others vs. the creative instincts of self?
I consider art and design to be very different things: art is a matter of self-expression and design is about problem solving. When I create art, I let my instinct take over and see what comes out of it. When I design, I think about things like consumer needs, business opportunities and manufacturing constraints. I need to understand those attributes, balance them to find the best solution and then communicate that solution and the reasoning behind it to an organization. Then I need to oversee manufacturing to make sure design intent is met, partner with the marketing team to communicate with retailers and continue to iterate based on consumer feedback to ensure that the next product I create is even better than its predecessor. It’s a long process full of creative thinking and team collaboration, but it’s not singularly about my own ideas and expressions.
Let’s get back to Xbox Design Lab. Recognizing customization and personalization are increasingly an inherent expectation of the consumer experience, where does Microsoft and Xbox believe user customization will continue? Will we see a similar level of customization beyond the controller over to the console itself?
In the earlier days when we were discussing how and why we should bring Xbox Design Lab to life, our team talked about how choice has become an expectation for consumers. We talked about how Xbox and gaming in general is rooted in storytelling, imagination and expression. And when we put these two factors together, Xbox Design Lab made sense because gaming is an important piece of personal identity and social culture.
Right now, we’re focused on offering customization options for the new Xbox Wireless Controller. Controllers can be seen as personal accessories and a physical gateway into a digital world so using a controller as a canvas for personal expression was a good first step. In regard to expanding the program, the team has received a lot of great feedback from fans and there are many options we’re exploring. Xbox Design Lab is a platform that enables countless possibilities, so we definitely encourage our fans to share their feedback with us as we can continue expanding the gaming experience.