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Microsoft went all in on accessible design. This is what happened afterwards

The tech giant took a big step by developing an Xbox controller for people with disabilities. Now that work is leading to changes in the industry at large.

Microsoft went all in on accessible design. This is what happened afterwards
[Photo: Logitech]

The Xbox Adaptive Controller is one of the most telling products in how design as we know it is changing. It’s a boxy controller with two giant buttons and over a dozen ports for external peripherals, to allow people with disabilities the option to play Xbox in any manner they can.

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If the 2000s and 2010s were about bringing good design to everyone, the 2020s are shaping up to be about bringing good design for everyone else—the so-called fringe cases embraced in inclusive design who have been overlooked by a world that champions averages and other one-size-fits-all solutions.

[Photo: Logitech]

But the Xbox Adaptive Controller was just the first step into more inclusive video games and voting machines. And we’re seeing that proven in a new, companion product developed by the mouse and keyboard giant Logitech. Called the Adaptive Gaming Kit, it’s a collection of mix-and-matchable buttons that plug into the Xbox Adaptive Controller for additional customization.

Priced at just $99, it includes three big buttons that can be stepped on or hit with a head or an elbow, three smaller buttons for similar use cases, four microswitches that need nothing more than a finger tap to activate, and two pressure-sensitive triggers that can work as gas pedals, allowing variable, pressure-based input. These buttons stick firmly onto two pads with Velcro. Those pads can be placed on a table, tilted like a laptop stand, or wrapped around an arm or wheelchair. The idea is that the player can set up the controls however they want.

[Photo: Logitech]

“It’s not one product that will solve everything,” says Ujesh Desai, VP and general manager of Logitech. “If every user’s needs are unique, [we had to build] a kit with every button and switch they could need.”

The Adaptive Gaming Kit was a project that started long before Desai even realized the road his company was on. More than two years ago, Microsoft reached out to Logitech, requesting some joysticks to test a secretive, unannounced product. Microsoft and Logitech are frequent partners; Logitech sells all sorts of headsets and other components that plug into Xbox peripherals already. So Desai gave his consent for Curtis Brown, Logitech’s strategic partnership manager, to send whatever Microsoft wanted. Then he pretty much forgot about it.

After about a year, Microsoft invited Desai, Brown, and the team out to see the mystery product. Inside Microsoft’s accessibility lab, Desai was blown away by the inclusive vision of the Xbox Adaptive Controller. He also realized just how much free product Logitech had been sharing with Microsoft when he learned more about the project and saw it strewn around the lab.

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“Unbeknownst to me, he must have given them hundreds of our joysticks . . . it was a lot,” Desai laughs. “That’s when it came out how much gear Curtis had given them. He looked at me sheepishly, and I gave him a big hug. . . . I said, ‘This is really important to Logitech—we need to learn more about this space.'”

That’s when Logitech created a dedicated team focused on building something to plug into the adaptive controller. Microsoft was generous in sharing what it had learned, and Logitech began collaborating with groups such as Special Effect, the gaming-with-disabilities charity in the U.K.

“We spent a week there with their occupational therapists. They showed us all the equipment and different buttons they use,” says Desai. “And they showed us no patient was the same. We got to meet a number of the people they work with, and hear from them about some of the pain points they had.”

[Photo: Logitech]

Logitech, which knows as much about controller ergonomics as any company on the planet, absorbed a lot of new information about designing around disabilities. That’s when they began to piece together this multipronged, customizable approach.

Desai’s team also recognized some clearer shortcomings with specialty buttons and switches on the market: They just weren’t built all that well. These components would often break in a few months, yet sometimes they cost over $100 for a single switch (and someone might need many switches). That meant an Xbox, the Adaptive Controller, and some extra buttons could top out over $1,000. Who can afford that?

“I arbitrarily picked a price point. I told the team, I want the whole thing for only $99,” says Desai. “They looked at me like, ‘OK . . .’ [But] having a clear goal, saying no, it’s not going to be more than $99, we challenge our team to do something that was high-quality design but still reach a [lot of people].”

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Through the process, Logitech worked with gamers to figure out how these buttons should be Velcroed. They also learned that often, it wasn’t a gamer but a caretaker who would be setting up these controllers. That meant the controllers needed clear label systems that would allow a Luddite to piece together a very specific setup, take it down, and put it back together again. And of course, the product packaging itself needed to be accessible too—so Logitech followed all of the best practices learned by Microsoft, which had already spent a year developing an easy-open box for the Adaptive Controller.

For now, it appears that Logitech succeeded at all its tasks and then some. Note how colorful, and downright playful, the buttons look. I want to play with these myself! “The biggest thing we learned—a number of people with accessibility needs use this term a lot. They don’t want to feel othered. They understand they might need gaming gear different than someone else, but they don’t want to feel othered,” says Desai. So Logitech pulled colors and other symbology on the controllers right from the Xbox itself. “That’s why designing the buttons and switches, we wanted to make them feel like gaming equipment. That’s why the labels match the Xbox, because it’s a gaming product.”

[Photo: Logitech]

Desai admits that the $99 retail price for a collection of 12 buttons, while doable, means that Logitech’s margins on the Adaptive Gaming Kit are lower than most of its products. “But all the way from me to Bracken [Darrell], our CEO, we said, ‘This doesn’t matter, this is an area you need to do the right thing.'”

And in the few hours since Logitech launched the kit, Desai had already heard from gamers who actually imagine that the kit might help in all sorts of other parts of their lives. That response certainly makes sense: High-quality, cheap, customizable buttons could be beneficial to someone in a wheelchair during all sorts of times when they aren’t gaming, from turning on the lights to opening a door.

So what does this all mean for Logitech? Could the PC and gaming peripheral company become something more, something that might help with someone’s mobility or healthcare needs, too? “That’s something we’re going to have to think through,” says Desai. But he means it. Now that it’s started down the road of inclusive design, Logitech is earnestly trying to figure out what comes next.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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