How Microsoft Created A New Xbox Experience

The release of the redesigned Xbox One interface shows Microsoft’s support for both the old and the new. It was a long path to get there.


Click. Then another click. You swipe and button-press through menu after menu to get to your goal: creating a party so that you and your friends can chat while you play some Halo 5 together. Why does it take so much to do something so integral to gaming? It’s like Microsoft wanted you to have an experience akin to the challenge of fighting aliens.

Fans have said that the Xbox One has had a convoluted dashboard system, with core functions buried. With the launch of a redesigned interface, what it calls “The New Xbox One Experience,” the company wants to change that. It starts with simplifying the menu system so users have an easier time.

“We always wanted to reduce the number of steps to at least half. In some cases, we have gone from seven steps to one step,” says Richard Irving, Partner Group Program Manager for Xbox One, who lead the team behind the design and engineering of the core platform shell on the new Xbox One UI, as well as the platform of the original Xbox One UI back in 2012 and 2013.


The New Interface

The main way of bringing down the number of steps you need to take is “The Guide.” A column of six simple line symbols on the left of the screen, simply pressing to the right in any of the dashboard pages takes you to a menu where a whole set of functions are at your fingertips rather than being found five screens deep. You can see what friends are online, send them messages, check system notifications about downloads or installations, change settings and preferences, or open up the Snap Center, which is the right sidebar that can hold an app that isn’t the main one on screen.

In the past, if you wanted to see which friends were online playing, if you were in a game, you would have to press the Xbox button to go in the dashboard. If you were already there, you would have to move to the home screen by pressing several buttons. Then you click over to your social profile and click in to see the list. Now, no matter whichever page you are at on the main dashboard pages, clicking to the left while at the top brings up the guide, where the friends list is the first icon and automatically expanded.

The other solution to alleviating the quagmire of the old design was to add verticality to the menus, making the dashboard feel more like a set of webpages rather than a never-ending series of static screens. The ability to press the trigger buttons on the controller to jump up and down the pages speeds up navigation. And though there is a lot going on with each of these vertical pages in the new design, just like going to a new website, a sense of being overwhelmed fades.


Of course, the redesign wasn’t just about menus. It was also about new functions. The backend was rewritten on top of Windows 10, which means you can now stream games over your network to the Xbox app on your PC running Windows 10. Players can now chat between Xbox One and PCs. There is also a new Community pages with various social content, including videos and screenshots developers and other players are sharing. Game hubs give titles individual destinations for everything related to that one game. And backwards compatibility comes to Xbox One, allowing about 100 Xbox 360 games to be played on the Xbox One, with hundreds more being added over the next year.

But despite all these new functions, the design team had to start with fixing what was already there.

“No one is going to take a new UI with a bunch of promise for the future if it doesn’t solve the problems they already have. Knowing that there are some really important things for us to do down the road. It has to stand the test of time,” says Irving.


The Design Begins

The UI team had been keeping an eye on the Xbox Feedback site, where gamers can post an idea for features the Xbox should have and others can then vote on them. The team saw that it would become increasingly complicated to add some of the suggestions into the original Xbox One dashboard, so in July 2014, when some were working on a simple update to the existing interface, others began looking ahead. Some users requested the ability to send your game DVR clips to friends via message and the changes needed in the old UI to allow that were included in the next update; for the new UI, both the messages interface and the game DVR interface were redesigned.

Irving says,”As we got more fan feedback, we went into this dual design model. We wanted to address the feedback we got in the September 2014 update, so we went hard at work to make it fit into the UI model that we had. But then we had another group of designers that were testing it in a new model. And we evolved that design until we had a system that would accommodate all the new things that you would throw at it.”

As Irving puts it, the main pillar of the redesign was to improve the basic usage of the dashboard, including speeding up user interactions.


“Speed from UI perspective, could mean quite a few things. Speed can mean the time it takes to load a particular scene of UI. It also means the numbers of steps I have to take to perform a certain task. But it also means the number of things I have to comprehend on the path of doing that task. So we looked at all three of those things,” says Irving.

The Testing Process

By January of 2015, it had some mockups done and began paper testing, bringing test users in to take a look at the print outs and see if they can figure out basic tasks.

“We would get them in the lab and ask them the most basic of questions. ‘If you wanted to invite a friend to play a game with you, where would you go?’ Very specific, directed things to just test out whether the system made as much sense to real users as it did to those of us working on the team,” says Irving.


In March 2015, the testing had moved on to actual prototypes that could be played on Xbox One hardware. The testing was done in Microsoft’s user research lab, where the team would watch subjects through a two-way mirror. Cameras would record not only what was happening on screen, but how subjects were using the controller, and their facial expressions. The team wanted to record everything the subjects did.

Irving says, “We went from a directed task to a more indirect approach that we call experience outcomes. It’s very general, rather than stacking the deck in our favor. Rather than saying, ‘Launch a game from your games and apps section.’ We just say, ‘Launch a game that you own.’ And then you watch the user and the path they take. Where do they expect to find their stuff? How do they expect launching to work?”

As part of the dual model scheme, some tests began in September 2014. On the then 9 million or so consoles out in the wild–Microsoft does not share exact console sales totals–the team began doing studies on the Xbox One’s digital store.


“We actually experimented with the ordering of information on the game details pages to help you make a decision most effectively,” says Irving. “You either bought the game or you went to look for another game as quickly as possible.

“It was an A/B test on multiple facets of the store. Whether it was that top-level browse: ‘Would you rather see new releases versus games that your friends play, versus stuff that’s popular on Live?’ All the way down to the details page: ‘Would you rather see a trailer for the game or a Twitch broadcast of the game, or game DVR clips of the game in order to decide what to buy most effectively?'”

While the testing of prototypes on hardware began in March 2015, the team expanded it via dogfooding, or testing on its existing product. After revealing the new interface to the world at the E3 conference in June, it then went to about 100 Xbox team members, and not just design folks, in July. That would soon expand to a thousand Xbox users in the larger Microsoft organization.


After that, the team launched a preview program in September where several hundred thousand users would use a Beta version of the new dashboard. Months of updates followed, all leading up to the launch today.

Irving says, “In the depths of the preview program, it was just day by day release of new builds. You’re trying to solve one problem, but then you cause a new problem in this other area. Or, as your preview users have spent three weeks with a particular feature, do you need to revise or tweak it to make it more effective? So it’s just the daily iteration, getting to November 12th, where the product is going to be where it is going to be.”

The team also started doing what it called “Golden Path” testing, a process it had devised back in 2008 for the update of the Xbox 360 that came with the launch of the Kinect motion controls. With Golden Path, the team takes a user through a whole Xbox initiation:

  • They show the user ads for the Xbox One and its new interface, getting their thoughts and reactions.
  • They take them to the Retail Experience Center, a mocked up retail store on the Microsoft campus and learn their decision making process between which Xbox One SKU they prefer.
  • They bring them home and watch them set up the console and interact with the new interface for the first time, recording all the details.
  • Later, they will do “Longitudinal Golden Path” testing, where they look at the usage data of those people, not unlike a Nielsen home for television ratings.

The Culmination

The entire testing process left its mark on the new interface. For instance, the list of recently used items on the lower half of the home screen went through changes. Games listed have contextual buttons presented beside the logo to start the game. The buttons get you to the game hub, or show you friends currently playing, or you can get to your game DVR clips and screenshots. Fans asked for similar items with apps, such as Netflix or ESPN. Now you can just load the app or maybe jump to Sports Center on demand or a live football game on ESPN3, as hypothetical examples.

But initially, it didn’t work out quite as planned.

Irving says, “The way we did it was frustrating initially. We just had them in the big tile. Users were confused about where the focus went. And they were annoyed because it was one more click to get to things. So we pulled that out from the launch for the New Xbox One Experience. It’s something we are going back to the drawing board on.”


So after more than a year of tests, of redesigns, of bug squashing, of user feedback, a more functional system is now in the hands of Xbox One users. Of course, it doesn’t end here for Irving and the rest of the UI team. It is still getting feedback online. And it’s building the next small update. And there will be another sizable update coming in 2016, to bring Cortana, the Windows voice-controlled assistant, to Xbox One.

“There’s a lot of expectations based on how Cortana works on the desktop and on the phone, with how Cortana should work on Xbox One. So we actually made the decision that we need to do a longterm preview program for Cortana,” says Irving.

“We can’t redesign the UI when Cortana comes out. It has to withstand that. We have other things in our long term list of things that we want to, or even stuff that fans have been wanting to do. It has to withstand those tests as we bring new things in. It has to be just as fast, just as easy to use, just as discoverable for new content.”


About the author

His work has also been published by Kill Screen, Tom's Guide, Tech Times, MTV Geek, GameSpot, Gamasutra, Laptop Mag, Co.Create, and Co.Labs. Focusing on the creativity and business of gaming, he is always up for a good interview or an intriguing feature.