Improving the PS3 user experience

Flipping on my PS3 this week, I was reminded of the system?s poor user interface. I wanted to watch some Netflix and make some system setting changes, but the setup was awkward and clinical, while also taking longer than expected. Ironically, those same characteristics could be applied to Sony?s tepid response to their recent massive Playstation Network (PSN) security breach.

That?s the thing about user interfaces; they reflect the priorities and values of their makers. Apple?s work is known for its visual simplicity and graceful lines. Twitter conveys freshness and a sense of whimsy. What about Sony? Other than favoring dark color schemes with pulsating icons and text, giving a vaguely generic, Euro-slick vibe, there isn?t anything that makes Sony?s UI stand out or be that approachable.

That?s exactly why a UI refresh is important, especially in light of Sony?s PSN debacle. An improved user experience can both help get the brand back on track and add differentiation from its competitors. I?ve got three suggestions for Sony: ditch the XMB, improve notifications of game and system updates, and emphasize large imagery and user avatars.

Remove the XMB

The PS3?s UI centers on a Xross Media Bar (XMB), effectively a series of icons spread out horizontally across the screen. As a user selects an icon on the horizontal bar, a column of additional icons appear above and below the selected icon.

On the PS3 each column of icons is separated by category, but there?s a problem: The interface places equal weight on each category when realistically most users spend almost all their time under just two or three of them: Game to play their PS3 and PSN games, Movie to watch Netflix and downloaded movies, and PlayStation Network to get more content.

Perhaps Sony could keep the XMB but push it more as a secondary form of navigation, akin to the site map or index on some web sites. Primary navigation could be patterned off the Dock in Mac OS X, grouping together a user?s most frequently accessed actions and making them always accessible. For example, my ?PS3 dock? would have an option to play what?s in the Blu-ray drive, jump into Netflix, play movies from a inserted USB drive and log on the PSN store. That?s just four options to handle 95% of what I do with the system.

Better game and system update process

Much of the headache accompanying the PS3?s game and system updates is their frequency and size, not to mention they each require a reboot of the respective game or system. Part of the solution is technical: Updates should auto download in the background and in smaller, more manageable parts. Sony is moving in the right direction by granting Playstation Plus members auto download functionality, but it?s limited in scope (e.g. no auto installs) and because it?s part of Playstation Plus, it costs extra.

The user interface that accompanies PS3 updates deserves a revamp as well. It currently prompts (and usually forces) the user to update as soon as he or she boots up a game, Netflix or PSN – one of the worst possible moments. Instead, users should be notified of an update right when turning on the PS3 and be able to unobtrusively auto download updates below a set size. They would be prompted to download larger updates at their leisure with a few simple actions.

Warm up the interface with avatars, box art, and color

One of the system UI?s biggest weaknesses is that it just feels aesthetically cold with its small icons, text, and lack of imagery. Granted, many of the available themes and backgrounds are good looking, as are the full screen backgrounds that often popup when selecting PS3 game icons, but I still think it feels hollow. Contrast the PS3?s interface with that of the XBox 360, the Wii or other entertainment devices like the Apple TV: The XBox and Apple TV emphasize very large, album cover like imagery to represent games, settings and movies. In addition, the XBox and Wii use personable avatars to represent both current users and friends online. Finally, the XBox, Apple TV and Wii all use a far wider color palette than the PS3.

Sony delivers a sleek, minimal look that yells ?business? and ?functional?, miles away from a ?fun? or ?family friendly? message that most people expect when flipping on a game console (Sony probably thinks the slick look makes the console appealing to adults, but slick can?t come at the expense of personality.) That has to change, and can be done while still feeling in line with Sony?s brand. I?d start by doubling or tripling their icon and font size, using more color and swap their PSN, game and movie icons with more custom art to convey variety.