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How Microsoft fixed the worst thing about product packaging

A new package designed for people with disabilities looks like a joy for anyone to open.

How Microsoft fixed the worst thing about product packaging
[Photo: courtesy Microsoft]

Thanks in no small part to Apple, packaging design is a major part of the design process at many companies today. So when designing the new Xbox Adaptive Controller–a gamepad for people who might not have use of their limbs at all–Microsoft realized it also had to figure out how to build a box for it that was just as accessible and amazing, too.

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“We were focused on helping gamers with limited mobility have a more enjoyable experience, and we wanted to follow that ethos with the packaging we created.” says Mark Weiser, packaging designer, global packaging and content, at Microsoft. “We wanted to end up with a very empowering experience, so these gamers are able to unbox it themselves and kick off gaming confidently.”

[Image: courtesy Microsoft]

The resulting Adaptive Controller box is almost as impressive as the controller itself. The outer shipping box looks like your standard brown rectangle. But you can pull on a loop at the end, and rip the single line of tape right off. Watching Weiser demonstrate the maneuver over video chat, it looks beyond effortless. I can’t help but imagine popping open the countless Amazon packages that come to my door with the same casual swipe.

By pushing on the box from basically any angle, it unfurls completely flat. Inside is the official, shelf-beautiful Xbox box. It features no adhesives to stay shut. Instead, the paper is folded cleverly to be poked, prodded, or pulled open. It’s designed with materials that won’t punish the teeth of anyone who needs to use them to open the package. Overall, the guiding philosophy is that there’s no one method you must use to open the product, but several options.

With the box opened, you get your first look at the controller, propped up on a pedestal. There are more loops to pull it out, or you can just nudge it. In any case, you don’t have to worry about damaging the controller, or even making a loud noise–a thin piece of paper from the case slides out with the controller, catching it as it hits the table.

[Image: courtesy Microsoft]
“You can grab it right out, you can use your underhand or foot to slide it out,” says Weiser. “And there’s also a loop on the device. It can work underhand or overhand. Or you can pressure down on the whole device to slide it out.”

To develop the packaging, Microsoft worked with a dozen or so testers, each of whom lives with a disability. Their feedback informed every detail, down to the geometries of the handles.”The big challenge from the design standpoint was really distilling the components and the details to create a simplified version of what would be actually accessible,” says Kevin Marshall, creative director of design at Microsoft, who leads packaging. “You could end up creating a huge loop on the box . . . but getting the consistency, and unified look, and dialing in on how wide do we need these loops–there’s a point where they get too wide and end up being flimsy, or too small.”

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[Image: courtesy Microsoft]
For instance, the design team originally used too large of a loop on the shipping box–which just tore off in Microsoft’s own trial mail testing. The team says the biggest challenge wasn’t the general approach but getting the little details right, to ensure that an accessible design both worked and felt copacetic with the Xbox brand.

As for whether or not Microsoft plans to take some of the accessible design of this package and apply it to other Xbox packaging, the company won’t say. But I suspect that, at least in the case of their easy-open shipping box, it’s the sort of thing that won’t be coming to other Microsoft products, or Amazon boxes, soon. Accessibility does come with the trade-off of security, and a box that’s superbly easy to open is superbly easy to steal from in transit. That doesn’t mean that some of these innovations won’t make their way into other forms of packaging. Such is the power of inclusive design, whereby designing with what might appear to be an edge case in mind produces product design for everyone.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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