The reason I love Nintendo is the games they make.
Often the hardware too, but mostly the games. They are experts at crafting consistently imaginative gaming experiences.
However if there’s one area they are not experts in, it’s creating consistently friendly user interfaces for their consoles.
Creating good user interfaces is hard, there is no doubt about it. Whether it’s the Xbox 360 dashboard, with its relentless attempts to push advertising, or the functional but cold Sony cross-media bar. Collating and aggregating the functions and content of a modern device is a tough thing to do. Even usability flag bearers Apple have struggled to keep their iOS fresh as the iPhone has increased in capability.
Nintendo, for all their talents, never seem to get their console interfaces right. The funny thing is that they often have the right approach. They try to make it fun; they use humour to make the most mundane tasks playful, they sprinkle Easter Eggs for the user to discover. No other company would think of using Pikmin to visualise a data transfer process, or a jumping Mario to indicate download progress. But they always seem to fall down on speed and intuitiveness.
The UI for the original Wii console is a prime example. Looking back, the channel based menu is quite remarkable. Its simple layout is very reminiscent of the iOS dashboard (which it beat to market) and it even had apps of a sort with news, weather, voting channels and so on. It’s a lovely design that works beautifully with the Wii Remote’s infra-red pointer. So far, so good, but should you want to buy software from the Wii Shop, use the news channel or browse your photo library, things start to fall apart.
Each element feels designed in isolation, there are inconsistencies in terminology, the use of serif typefaces looks atrocious on 480p displays and of course it can be s-l-o-w. And if you were an avid purchaser of downloadable games you could also end up having to use two similar, but separately located, channel menus to find your games.
By comparison the original DS menu was stripped back with pixel sharp efficiency. The use of clean lines, a grid motif and simple fonts made using the system a delight. The arrival of the DSi complicated things, including a bizarre interfaces for its camera and sound applications that although playful, were obtuse and counter-intuitive. From an aesthetic standpoint there were more bad typefaces and gradient borders on icons that were did no favours by the relatively low resolution of the DS screen. To make matters worse, these changes sat uncomfortably alongside the elements retained from the original DS.
Sound has always been an interesting part of Nintendo’s interface design. Again, it’s a mix of the good a bad. In the good category you have the satisfying clicks of the original DS menus and the warming, rumble supported pops of the Wii menus. In the bad category, the interminable loading and waiting noises that proliferate Nintendo’s consoles, a seemingly endless succession of beeps and bloops that go on and on and on and on…..
Which brings us to Nintendo’s current generation of products. The Wii U is certainly a step in the right direction, it balances the two screens well, each offering its own distinct view into the console’s features; social on the TV, games and apps on the Gamepad.
The use of sound is again excellent, making the resistive screen feel more precise that it really is. However, the Wii U interface notoriously slow, even with the most recent firmware update. Digging into the sub menus, or trying to add or find friends is fiddly and strangely disconnected from the Miiverse, which is otherwise evolving quite nicely in response to user feedback.
The 3DS too is a similar mix of good and bad. The simple but customisable main screen works well, but again the camera and street pass sound functions are needlessly muddled.
Nintendo’s newest consoles are also the first to make a concerted effort in the digital retail space. The stores are nicely arranged, particularly on Wii U, but the purchasing process remain frustratingly cumbersome. Nintendo appears obsessed with warning messages, confirmations messages and confirmations of confirmations. It’s like they are trying to stop you spending money.
There is no such thing as perfect interface, but the best often start simple and have the scope to evolve naturally along with its product. Nintendo’s crazy inconsistency is sometimes appealing, but often baffling. How do you think they could improve things?