Hello, and welcome to Microsoft Stories, a new podcast about technology and innovation.
In this episode we hear about the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which makes it easier for people with limited mobility to play videogames.
The controller allows gamers to connect to external buttons, switches, mounts and joysticks, giving them an easy-to-set-up and readily available way to play Xbox One or Windows 10 games.
UK charities welcomed the device, as well as its packaging, which has been specially designed to be opened by gamers with limited mobility. The controller has received widespread praise, won a Golden Joystick Award and been included in a gallery devoted to groundbreaking design at the V&A museum in London.
You will hear from Vivek Gohil, a 30-year-old gamer who has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, who says the controller has allowed him to play his favourite games again. You will also hear from Chris Kujawski, principal designer on the Microsoft Device Design Team, who worked on the Adaptive Controller.
Click the play button and join us on our journey.
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Transcript of this episode:
Hi, I’m Andy Trotman, Head of News at Microsoft UK. Welcome to Microsoft Stories – a new podcast looking at technology and the people who use it.
In this series, I’m trying to answer the question: what is innovation? It means different things to different people. Innovation can be as simple as adding an eraser to the end of a pencil or as complex as sending people to the Moon.
What does it mean to be innovative? How do you know you’re being innovative? Along my journey, I meet people using technology in amazing ways, and discover what innovation means to them.
Join me on my journey – and don’t forget to click the like button on this episode.
Vivek Gohil is at home playing Forza Horizon 4, the game that reignited his love of gaming after fearing he would never be able to play his Xbox again.
SOUNDS OF A CAR RACE
The 30-year-old has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, which causes muscle degeneration and weakness. Vivek found that holding a standard Xbox controller was becoming impossible, so he stopped playing games.
Thousands of miles away in Redmond, near Seattle, a design team at Xbox was working on a product that would help Vivek and many others across the world who are unable to play games using standard controllers.
That product is the Xbox Adaptive Controller.
VIVEK: It was really devastating when I thought I had to stop gaming, and that’s when I realised how important gaming is.
It inspires me to think in gaming, if there is a problem, then don’t give up because there’s definitely something out there that can help you, it just kind of takes a bit of time. So it’s given me hope that if I have a problem it’s not like the end of the world, there is help available at the right time.
The Xbox Adaptive Controller lets disabled gamers plug their own switches and buttons into it to control what’s happening in the game. For example, Vivek has a button attached to the underneath of a table in front of him. When he lifts his knee into this button, his car in Forza Horizon 4 will accelerate. He also has a button on his wheelchair headrest. When he presses it with his head, the car will brake. A switch on top of the table steers the car left and right and can be used by Vivek with minimal movement of his hand.
SOUND OF BUTTONS BEING CLICKED
VIVEK: We just want to play games like everyone else. In the past for me as a gamer I never bought games from day one, I only wait until it comes out and then I can see if the settings or is the game going to be easy to play for me. I think with the Xbox Adaptive Controller and the new options out there for games is good. We can make an informed decision to buy a game from day one, like everyone else does.
The controller has changed the lives of so many gamers who have accessibility requirements. What I find incredible about this product is that it has huge amounts of innovation on both sides – the creators and the audience.
There are 21 ports, so gamers can map their own accessibility products to replace every button on a standard Xbox controller. Want to use the Xbox Adaptive Controller as a standalone controller? That’s fine too. It features two large buttons and a directional pad. It also features wireless Bluetooth and UBC-C connectivity. What if multiple people want to use the same controller? Well, you can create multiple controller profiles and instantly switch between them by using the built-in profile button.
Xbox made Adaptive Controller with the view that gamers could use it as a foundation to build a controller that works for them. Xbox didn’t want to force innovation on gamers. It wanted to release the controller and say to gamers: “go and be innovative”.
Here’s Chris Kujawski, principal designer on the Microsoft Device Design Team, who worked on the Adaptive Controller.
CHRIS: With the Xbox adaptive controller, it was a pretty unique project. I think for everyone who worked on it. It was innovative in a number of ways, not just in its form factor for the customer that we’re designing for, but also what it made us do organizationally in terms of how we think about building a product like that and how we had to rethink financial metrics and rethink how we test this with customers ahead of releasing it and how we think about our confidentiality in terms of unreleased hardware, which usually we keep very close to our chest, but we had to play that differently this time. And so it was innovative, not just by itself, but I think in the bigger picture, it was innovative for a lot of the organisation in terms of how we think about building products as well.
When I think of innovation, I think of groundbreaking products, things I can use to help me in my daily life. I hadn’t thought about innovation in the way a business operates differently when creating those products. But that’s exactly what Chris is talking about here. In order for the Xbox Adaptive Controller to benefit gamers with disabilities, those gamers would have to be involved in the controller’s creation to an extent that doesn’t normally happen in product development today. New products are usually kept under wraps until they are completed, with only a handful of carefully selected users from outside the company allowed to use it and provide feedback before the unveiling.
In this case, Xbox reached out to a few charities, including SpecialEffect and Muscular Dystrophy UK. That’s how the Xbox Adaptive Controller team in Redmond teamed up with Vivek. He works for Muscular Dystrophy UK, and the controller came at just the right time for him.
VIVEK: I want to stream and talk about accessibility and Xbox to appreciate what the Xbox adaptive controller has done. It’s nice to enjoy and show people how, with that you can carry on gaming and it’s just nice to spread awareness because I never realised that there was a lot of work going on in accessibility. I thought I was the only one with problems.
SOUND OF XBOX CONTROLLER BEING USED
A study from 2008 found that 20 percent of all gamers have a disability, and those gamers tend to play more often because it has mental benefits such as stress relief, distraction from ailments and improved concentration. For some gamers with disabilities, Xbox is how they contact friends and family and how they socialise with like-minded communities. This is particularly true during the Coronavirus pandemic, with the Government urging vulnerable members of society to remain at home.
That study was supported by research from the University of York and the AbleGamers Charity in West Virginia. They found that gamers with disabilities primarily play video games to have fun and personally challenge themselves, as well as managing health conditions such as stress and depression. It also creates physical therapy for their hands, they said. About a third of respondents said they played games to help with pain management.
In a 2018 report that called for more support for gamers with disabilities, Muscular Dystrophy UK stated that gaming has changed from a hobby into a force and a platform for change.
That view was the approach taken by Chris as his team as they were working on the Xbox Adaptive Controller.
CHRIS: We didn’t want to design something that was so custom and bespoke to an Xbox platform that we’d require somebody to buy all new stuff. It was really meant to be a really broad platform so that they could bring equipment they already had, equipment that they make themselves and bring that to the platform and really create a custom setup and that’s so if, when you think about innovation on the product, it’s innovative in the sense that nothing like it has existed before. But really it comes to life when the end customer innovates with it and makes it work for them, because there’s no two setups that are going to be the same.
That’s a good point when it comes to innovation in the accessibility space. No two setups are the same, everyone has different needs and likes and dislikes and preferences. This can mean that only a small selection of gaming products can be used by people with disabilities. Those are often bespoke products, which also means they can be very expensive. Complete gaming setups, even basic ones, can cost thousands of pounds.
This goes back to Chris’ earlier point about innovation in the business, particularly around financial metrics. His team made a conscious decision to keep the Xbox Adaptive Controller affordable. The current price is £74.99, which is a fraction of the cost of other solutions that have less functionality.
CHRIS: But it was a very conscious decision process that we had to go through to make sure that we were designing in the right features, but not overburdening the product that would make it more expensive than useful.
It really came to all of these extra features that might have made it more interesting and might have helped a few more people use the product, but it wasn’t moving the needle big enough, it wasn’t moving the needle far enough to make it worthwhile. And so what it came down to was just taking a hard look at what the goals for the product were, which were to make it as adaptable to as many different needs as possible, and doing that in a way that didn’t overburden the product cost-wise.
Chris is talking about innovation in a way that echoes a lot of the interviews I have recorded for this podcast series. There was no “Eureka” moment. The innovation was measured, curated, even planned, and over time the product evolved. Innovation was an ingredient in the recipe. You could say it was baked in from the start.
He said to me that the Xbox Adaptive Controller project started because it seemed like a good idea. From there it was a “process of discovery”, because the idea was so new. No one had attempted to build a controller like this before, so the innovation happened as the designers of the Xbox Adaptive Controller were working on the idea.
CHRIS: This programme is unique in that it was a much more organic path to an innovative product and it grew from the start of trying to solve a problem, which, anytime you’re innovating, you’re trying to solve a problem. But we definitely didn’t have any preconceived ideas of how we would solve that, we identified the problem, you know, recognised that it was a real challenge, and then tried a bunch of stuff that didn’t work, eventually landing on something that did work pretty well.
What I found interesting is that once the controller was finished, the innovation didn’t stop. Instead, that innovation around accessibility has influenced others at Microsoft.
Other teams saw what Chris and his colleagues were doing, they saw the passion with which they approached the project, the excitement they had for trying something new and learning along the way. That passion sparked creativity and innovation, which motivated other teams to do something similar.
I have come to realise that passion can play a huge role in innovation. Having passion for a project changes the way you approach a problem, makes you more motivated to try something different and makes you want to succeed.
CHRIS: It helps when you’re personally invested in solving a problem, but it also helps when you can recognise that what you’re doing is really needed by customers.
We have a lot of really smart, really creative people, not just in the design discipline, but I think one of the great strengths of all the folks that worked on the Adaptive Controller is that they are creative and think differently about solving. So they were able to think differently about solving a problem and challenges like this are just really exciting to people who are creative and they want to dive in and they want to keep it going. And so that’s one of the real reasons that the Adaptive Controller saw the light of day, was that these creative people recognised what a cool opportunity it was to design something that had never been designed before, do something that was never built before, but we’re still designing it for the same customer that we’re always building products for.
When you look at it this way, you can see how innovation can be something that happens as a by-product. Chris admits that it “wasn’t a traditional journey”, the project had a lot of space to breathe and evolved naturally. But whether the innovation is intended or not, it can still be influential.
CHRIS: So I think a big part of the innovation that’s come along with the Adaptive Controller that was not necessarily core to the device itself is it made people think differently about designing for accessibility within Microsoft. Microsoft has had a pretty good track record of it. It’s always been a core part of the company’s ethos, I would say. But especially within hardware, the recognition is that designing for accessibility is an important aspect of designing any product and designing the packaging for any product. That recognition is due in large part to the success and recognition that the Adaptive Controller has had within, from our fans and from the community.
He’s right. Microsoft does have a good track record of accessibility. Just look at all the features in Windows 10 – Immersive Reader, ReadAloud, Magnifier. I could do a whole podcast series just on accessibility features in Microsoft products.
However, I wanted to focus on the Xbox Accessibility Controller because it is an incredible moment in time for accessibility products. It’s won countless awards and has been added to a gallery in London’s V&A Museum devoted to groundbreaking design. According to the museum, the controller “addresses the question of inclusive design head-on”.
That applies to the packaging, too. If you haven’t seen a video of someone unboxing the Xbox Adaptive Controller then I highly recommend watching one. Every part of the brown box the controller is delivered in and the packaging that houses it is designed to be opened by someone with limited mobility. There are no twist ties, no thick plastic, no tough tape to take off. There are lots of loops that a gamer with one hand, or even no hands, can pull to open the box, and remove the controller, cable and the single sheet of easy-to-follow instructions.
It’s the only product I’ve seen that has as much innovation in its packaging as it does in the product inside.
Here’s Vivek’s view of the packaging.
VIVEK: It is quite clever. I’ve seen a lot of my streamer friends unboxing the controller and the box was so easy. Sometimes it’s really difficult to open things. I also think the cardboard is really sustainable as well, so I’m impressed how they covered every aspect of the adaptive controller, even the box, because it’s nice to be able to open the box yourself if you can, really.
Microsoft has a packaging design team that created the box, so Chris’ team didn’t work on that aspect. In fact, the two teams sit in different buildings on Microsoft’s Redmond campus. But once again it does show how creativity and innovation can spread when you’re passionate about a project. And once again it came about because Microsoft put the people who would be using the product and opening the packaging at the centre of the design process.
The packaging design team conducted user research, they took prototypes to customers, they held interviews, got feedback, listened and watched as customers tried to open different packages they had in their homes, they learned what was easy to open and what was, frankly, impossible. A lot of people with limited mobility are forced to open packages with their teeth, which can cause injury.
So, the packaging design team were on a mission to find as much information as possible from people who would use controller when it was released. Then, they took all that information back to the Microsoft campus and created an accessibility-first box that looks as good as any other example of product packaging the company has placed on shelves around the world.
CHRIS: It’s still presented in a heroic stance, in a heroic way, which is always our goal when a customer opens a package, we want the product to be heroed and have a positive first visual impact. And they did that in a way that still made it really easy to open, extract from the package, extract the QSG, the quickstart guide, and all the cables that you need. And they did it in a way that was really elegant, and it’s just a great package.
It’s an understatement to say Chris was blown away by the packaging design team’s work. He admitted to me that it wasn’t what he expected – it was even better than that.
In fact, I think that perfectly sums up the whole project. A passionate team tried to create something that could help people and ended up with something even better – a truly innovative product.
VIVEK: For me, I don’t think it’s just for Microsoft or Xbox, it’s for the whole industry because it pushes people and other companies to think about accessibility as a mainstream … that it is something that needs to be in games, it’s just not optional.
That’s all the time we have for today. Thanks to Vivek and Chris for chatting to me. And thank you for listening. Look out for the next episode of Microsoft Stories soon.