Gaming consoles and poor UI design

Video game consoles are still putting up great numbers seven years into their current generation. But why have their user interfaces remained so bad? I was reminded of this on a popular Giant Bombcast (gaming podcast) from two weeks ago; the hosts talked at length about the sad state of Microsoft’s latest XBox Live UI refresh. Microsoft largely sidelined avatar functionality, one of the rare bits of personalization and whimsy from an otherwise business-like UI. The Netflix interface was overhauled so poorly that the hosts had moved their film streaming needs to other platforms. Common actions now required more taps of the controller than in earlier XBox Live iterations.

Ironically, XBox Live is generally regarded as the premier console gaming network. It costs $50 a year and generates a lot of revenue for Microsoft, a cool billion two years ago. So why isn’t some of that money being plowed back into great UI design?

The XMB, Sony’s navigation interface for the PS3, doesn’t fare well in the UI department either. Among the Roku, Apple TV, Mac, iPhone, and Boxee, all of which I own or have played with heavily, PS3 has the worst user experience. There’s too many actions and layered menus to get more complex actions done. Software updates, large in size and not skippable, pop up frequently before gameplay. (Sony apparently never got the memo on auto background updates.)

Yet UI may be beside the point: clearly the healthy state of console gaming’s market derives from the games themselves. But that market is changing, growing up and moving more mainstream. XBox 360s are being used now more for streaming media than gaming. A “one box media center” for the living room could just as easily be an XBox as a Roku or an Apple TV. Media partners clearly see this; content providers from Amazon to ESPN and HBO are supporting consoles in full, often adding their services to the XBox and PS3 just as fast as other set top devices.

In addition, while a Xbox 360 or PS3 costs $150 more than an Apple TV, that a premium price tag delivers far more capable hardware. It’s hardware that powers more immersive games, along with more responsive and novel interfaces (e.g. the Kinect) than their cheaper counterparts. Beefier hardware also means getting cool tech features (e.g. Dolby Digital 5.1, 1080p) before the competition.

Yet as we’ve seen before, muscular tech, lots of money and media partners will only get you so far without a solid user experience; just ask RIM. Competition is heating up: Apple and the rest of the portable market is on one side, chipping away at consoles’ casual gaming segment. Smaller, cheaper and simpler boxes from the likes of Roku form the other wing, attacking consoles’ non-gaming features. Without a adjustment in UI and other consumer-friendly maneuvers, I fear gaming consoles could be effectively squeezed out in the middle.