By Peter Ramsey
2 Nov 21
The next-gen console showdown
There's a bias that I've been silently pondering for a few years: the user experience of video game consoles is so much worse than general consumer apps, but it's rarely mentioned.
Both Microsoft and Sony released 'next gen' consoles in 2020, which objectively have interfaces that are considerably worse than most of the software you'll use daily.
My initial rationale was that the complexity of having a controller—with buttons and joysticks, instead of a cursor—made it more challenging.
I've spent a few months with both the Xbox Series X and the Playstation 5, agonising over the small details. And whilst I still think that the controller is a limiting factor, it's not the reason for this bias.
And importantly, you don't need to be passionate about either console to (hopefully) enjoy this—it's designed in a way to have clear UX takeaways that are relevant to general software design.
Let's jump right in:
Firstly, let me show you a good exercise to benchmark one product against another (useful for competitive research).
On the surface it looks too simple to be valuable, but having used this methodology for years—and over many industries—I can vouch for its effectiveness.
I've created a basket of 30 'common' tasks, split over 3 categories, and then recorded a series of datapoints during the completion of those tasks.
You can view them all here, but here are three examples:
Checking the achievements/trophies for a game, while you're playing it.
Starting a party chat
Inviting two friends to a party chat.
Purchasing a game
Searching for and purchasing a specific game in the digital store.
Albeit a crude instrument, it allows us to simulate and benchmark usage.
To start with, let's look at how many actions (button presses) it takes to complete our basket of tasks:
Total number of actions
On average, the PS5 required 29.8% more input than the Xbox to complete a comparative task.
There's a data-mine here, but it's important to also know the distribution of clicks and tasks.
As you can see below, the Playstation wasn't just slightly more awkward at some tasks, but required more effort for most tasks.
A notable example of this is the Control Centre, which defaults your focus onto the activity cards—forcing the user to hop down, then along until they reach the menu item that they want.
But before we prematurely conclude that that Xbox has a better interface, there's another metric to lean on: number of significant screens.
As an example, when purchasing a game through the Xbox store, you'll see the following 3 consecutive pages:
Experienced users will fly through these screens because of muscle memory. But new users will need to digest each screen and all of the content in it.
This mostly happens at a sub-conscious level, but it adds to their 🧠 Cognitive Load—i.e., the more options you can see, the more you need to understand, and the more effort that requires.
When the majority of the content (or actions) in view changes, I call that a 'significant screen'.
If you look again at the Xbox example above, it's not just the buttons that have changed, but the layout, the colours, the fonts and even the context.
Understanding what you're looking at requires processing, and so you also need to consider the number of significant screens for each task.
Total number of significant screens
Interestingly it's the inverse of the 'actions' benchmark. Whilst most tasks do require more actions on the Playstation, the interface is actually more consistent and has fewer significant changes.
This means that on average, completing tasks on the Xbox require 19% more 'significant screen changes'.
If we look at the distribution again, we can see that there are no major outliers—something which is always worth double-checking.
But there's a nuance to consider when using the 'significant screens' benchmark: how much information is the user having to process in these screens?
i.e., as the number of possible actions (or routes) on each screen increases, so does the amount of effort that it takes to understand.
To demonstrate this, here's an abstract version of the Playstation dashboard, next to a modified version with 50% more buttons (by number, not volume).
You can see that as the number of actions increases, things feel busier—this is intuitive.
The Xbox has a greater number of significant screens, but that's far less relevant if it's not actually showing more information.
To test this, I've recorded every interactive element that is in view whilst completing these tasks. i.e., all the possible routes that the user could take, and therefore a better approximation of the amount of Cognitive Load from each screen.
Possible actions in view
After marvelling at how negligable the difference is (about 1%), we can draw a hypothesis.
Firstly, we can dismiss the notion that the Xbox requires less input because it packs more options into view at once. If that were true, then there would be far more 'possible actions' visible while completing tasks.
Instead, the Xbox requires less input because its menus are more efficient. It's configured in a way that makes every day tasks easier to do.
Or at least, easier than the Playstation 5.
Here's the kicker: they're both bad
The natural conclusion here would be to pick a winner. But that'd feel unfairly divisive, given that my opinion is that both consoles have terrible user experiences.
If you wrote a list of all the software that you use on a daily basis (Google Docs, Mac Mail, IOS, Twitter, TikTok...), they'd probably all be better than either console—and considerably so.
Both the Playstation and Xbox lack empathetic design or any real onboarding, and they make hundreds of obvious UX mistakes.
- Not auto-focusing on fields when there's only one field / action on the screen.
- Not auto-proceeding between the month and day fields in a date-picker.
- Empty states without actions (e.g., "no WiFi connected" without a link to connect the WiFi).
- Poorly-labelled settings (e.g., the difference between Playstation's 'Avatars' and 'Profile pictures').
- Basic functionality requires customer service (e.g., cancelling a pre-order on Playstation).
There's limited value in just listing 100 UX mistakes though.
Really, you don't just want to know what the mistakes were, but also how you can learn from them, and ultimately improve your product (whatever industry that is in).
So let's pick a few to go into more detail with.
4 in-depth examples of poor UX
1. Trophies vs Achievements
Both consoles have a system to track in-game milestones, which pop up during gameplay when unlocked.
These serve as a psychological reward for completing a task which otherwise may feel empty—for example, finding every collectable item.
But, you want the user to experience the endorphins (the reward), without detracting from the gameplay.
Playstation show a banner like this for 6 seconds:
On first glance this is fine—it's a moment of 😍 User Delight.
But when you consider that you won't always be working towards a specific trophy, it's facepalm-inducing—how do you know what this reward is for?
The value of a reward is much greater if you know what it is, or why you're getting it. It enhances the experience.
Xbox leverages this psychological bias to much greater effect, by having a 10-second notification, which carousels through key information.
Importantly, this includes a description of the achievement, which tells you why/how you've earned it.
Sure, on both consoles you could press a button to see a summary of that achievement, but despite obviously detracting from your mid-game experience, that's missing the point.
The Playstation trophy notification is more akin to a loot box—you know you have one, but then you need to take action to see what it is.
2. Assumed technical knowledge
It's already well-documented that upgrading the internal storage of the Playstation is awkward—you need to literally unscrew the unit, which unless you're familiar with PC-builds, you've probably never done before.
But, rarely is the software mentioned, which arguably is just as bad.
Assuming that you're not familiar with taking apart PCs and rebuilding them, it's likely that the following will be true during this process:
Nervous about failure
i.e., you don't want to break your console.
i.e., you're out your comfort zone.
i.e., once you're halfway through, you may start anticipating that it's going to go wrong, and regret ever starting.
In short: your emotions are heightened, you're feeling vulnerable and out of your depth.
Now imagine that you've screwed everything back together, nervously plugged the console back in, and turned it on. Your hands are clammy, and you see a series of screens like this:
It's what I'd describe as a 'dev screen'—all the information required, but no empathy or human touch.
Instead of calming the aforementioned negative psychology, it exacerbates it.
1. Implied doubt
"If you experience problems..."
2. Technical specification
e.g., "M.2 SSD", "read speed", "5547.403 MB/s"
Besides, showing the read speed is only useful if the user actually knows what the read speed should be.
The most important thing is that these screens are reassuring and comforting.
As an example, one small change would be to add a line of text clarifying if the user's SSD is above the recommended read speed.
3. Accidental cognitive dissonance
During the initial set-up (for both consoles), you're asked which power mode you'd like the console to be in.
Here's the Xbox's:
This is likely to be an impulsive decision, given that without knowing the details—i.e., how much energy it saves, or how much faster the start-up is—it's difficult to make a rational one.
Which is actually okay, because it can be changed later, and doesn't affect your initial gaming experience at all.
But, a few steps after this, you're asked if you want to turn on remote features...
It's worth noting the subtle context-shift here. Previously, you were being asked to think about power, and in the back of your mind you were considering the environmental implications (hopefully).
But now the context is on features (energy isn't even mentioned)—and who doesn't say yes to unlocking more features?
There are a few biases at play here, but one which you rarely see in software is 😮💨 Cognitive Dissonance: a form of psychological discomfort arising from holding two conflicting opinions.
i.e., once you select to turn on remote features, you need to decide if you were right before, or if you're right now.
I want to be energy efficient
My previous decision.
I want those features
My current decision.
This discomfort is only slight, and is otherwise a merely hiccup in the set-up process—but it still exists, and shouldn't happen.
The subtle mistake that Xbox made was not asking the user to make a decision once they had all the information. It makes no sense to ask it in two stages like this.
4. Efficient but unhelpful menus
Sometimes you'll have a friend round who wants to play a game, but you don't want them to make any progress on your account. Plus, many games don't let you have multiple saves in the same account (e.g., Call of Duty: Warzone).
Guest accounts exist to provide a quick way for you to load a temporary profile, without going through the whole 'create an account' process.
On the Xbox, there's a single button to add a guest:
This may be fine for experienced players. But it literally makes no attempt to teach new users how it works.
In contrast, Playstation have done a considerably better job.
To state the obvious: Playstation give you the context that you need to make a decision (and, to learn how it works).
'Quick menus' are often efficient, but for casual users—or infrequently used features—they can be less effective.
Largely I think that this a trend throughout the Xbox UI.
Things are built for efficiency (as demonstrated in the benchmarking), but the execution often was very poor from an educational perspective.
To finish, let me summarise this case study:
- For some reason, the UX of gaming is lagging behind general consumer apps.
- The interfaces of both the Playstation and the Xbox could be considerably better.
- This probably hasn't changed your mind about which to buy—which is fine, but hopefully it's given you some food-for-thought next time you play.