The Xbox One User Interface is a mystery to me.
It oscillates wildly between intuitive and bewildering. Often within seconds. There have been occasions where I've praised it to the high heavens for its ability to switch rapidly between apps. But if I had to define my time spend using the UI in one image it would be this: me, sat on my couch, frustrated, angrily scrolling through options, randomly barking instructions to Kinect. Desperately trying to find that one option I've been trying to change, with little to no idea where the hell I should be looking.
The Xbox One makes it even easy to do the simple things but it makes the complicated things incredibly difficult.
Yesterday Microsoft showed off its latest user interface to a group of Australian journalists. I was one of them. As someone who has bee critical of the Xbox One's UI in the past, I watched with great interest.
@Serrels I like it, it does what it needs to and I really only use the home screen anyway.
— AuzzGames (@Auzzgames) October 2, 2015
The launch of the Xbox One has been a troubled one. I think most people, including those at Microsoft, are happy to recognise that. Some people didn't like always online. Some people don't like Kinect.
Key words being some people.
It was interesting to hear Microsoft talk about its user interface. The vocabulary is interesting. Microsoft is'listening', they is 'responding'. Microsoft is in the process of trying to accumulate as much data as possible on how people are using their interface and responding to that. Managing that. Microsoft is interpreting its metrics, efficiently fixing the issues most people have with its service.
@Serrels I sometimes forget where options are located and the store feels annoying to navigate, but generally I like it.
— Matthew K. (@Kermitron) October 2, 2015
Earlier this year Microsoft invited me to their offices for a personal guided tour of the 'Xbox Experience'. I suspected someone had read my tweets — most likely posted by a bleary-eyed midnight version of Mark Serrels. Illegible tweets about the XBOX ONE UI BEING BLOODY BROKEN. URGH I HATE IT I CAN'T FIND ANYTHING. I suspect someone had read those (patently unfair) tweets and thought it might be a good idea to take me through the 'Xbox Experience', to give me an idea of what I was missing out on.
It's funny. My first reaction was negative: "I shouldn't have to be taught how to use a console user interface". But I don't mind saying that the demo I was eventually given — the things I was shown — were mind blowing. The Xbox One user interface — as it exists today — can do some pretty incredible things. As I watched Microsoft's nimble-fingered wizard deftly dance through the menus, easily navigating the options I regularly stumbled over like a drunkard in clown shoes, I thought to myself, "I'm wrong about this. I've been unfair to Microsoft."
And then I went home and turned on my Xbox One.
@Serrels not a fan, convoluted, let me PIN more stuff to make it my own, stop pushing ads on me.. I pay for the service, don’t need spam.
— Peter Moxom (@damoxy) October 2, 2015
It was sort of like watching Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk on YouTube and then trying to do the moonwalk. It looks easy when he does it but yeah... I can't do the moonwalk.
Of course, with my accent, Kinect continues to be useless unless I put on a hilariously false English accent. But that's fine. I'm Scottish, this is my curse to bear. But the menus that Microsoft's wizard deftly danced through still felt clunky to me. They still felt difficult, like hard work. If I wanted to do something specific, like change one specific setting, finding it was next to impossible.
TL;DR: when Microsoft tells me that it's working on improving the 'Xbox Experience', when they tell me that it's going to be more user-friendly, I want to believe but I can't help but be cynical.
@Serrels it’s the worst.
— Alex Smiles (@phonicpod) October 2, 2015
What was shown last night seemed great. The Microsoft menu wizard performed brilliantly. The new 'Xbox Experience' is faster. It's easier to do the things that most people want to do. They'll be able to do it even faster than they did before. This is good. This is probably the best thing for the majority of Xbox One users. This makes sense.
I couldn't help but wonder: how will this all work when I get home? What happens when I install the update to my own Xbox One and I try something really specific? How will that work? That's the real problem with the Xbox One user interface. Sure, you're making it easier to view my friends list, but that was already easy. What if I want to automatically download updates like the PS4 does? Apparently I can do that, but I've never been able to find out how. What if I want enter a code instead of scanning it using Kinect? It took me ten minutes to figure that out the first time.
But you know what? I'm ready to be enthusiastic all over again. I don't know how much of an improvement the new 'Xbox Experience' is going to be. From what I've seen so far, it looks great. It always looks great. Even when it's terrible it looks great.
It's Microsoft's commitment to metrics that gives me hope. Its commitment to listening to the majority of people and their concerns. My worry? That focus on metrics will result in a choir preaching exercise that negates broader problems with the interface.
Has Microsoft fixed the Xbox Experience in a meaningful way? That's the question. We'll have to wait until November to find out the answer.