Behind the Design: Xbox Controller

How these control freaks leveled up our new wireless controller

Joline Tang
Oct 6, 2020 · 7 min read
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For the past 19 years, the hardware team has been (almost obsessively) iterating the controller design. A millimeter here and a couple degrees there can mean the difference between “literally unplayable” and “quite possibly the best D-pad I’ve ever used” (true story).

And if there’s one thing they’ve learned, it’s that you don’t [insert choice verb here] with people’s controllers.

“Gamers are always looking for the fastest, most powerful console, but for what they hold in their hand? You’d better not change it without good reason,” laughs Senior Designer Ryan Whitaker.

Although the console powers the experience, the controller is the one thing you’re touching the entire time. “It needs to be comfortable, tactile, and intuitive,” says Nicolas Denhez, Senior Design Director. “As long as your console delivers the game, all you care about is what you hold in your hands.”

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The power of precision

The team preserved and finessed several previous design decisions, like the ABXY color scheme, the feel of the thumb stick, and the general shape. “What we kept was just as important as what we changed,” explains Ryan.

From our most passionate fans to casual gamers, people hold certain expectations of what a controller looks like, feels like, and moves like. “People’s fingers are remarkably sensitive to those changes, especially the super fans because they’ve built up muscle memory, so every change needs to give them more comfort and an improved response,” he continues.

So where do you start redesigning a product that’s been imprinted in some gamers’ muscle memory since 2001? Just like our newest consoles, the team relied on basic principles of good design — keep 80 percent, upend the rest. “We all agreed that we could always fall back on what we knew, so let’s 100 percent challenge the 20 percent,” Senior Designer Erika Kelter emphasizes.

The team scrutinized every button, every angle, every material, and every finish to find the right balance. Coming off a freshly minted Surface hardware project, Erika shares, “It was basically my job to question everything. To keep asking, ‘How can we make this even better?’”

To make every change ultra-purposeful and cost efficient, designers focused on core inputs, not extraneous features that players and developers may not use.

Leveraging what they learned from the Elite Controller, the team ultimately designed a hybrid directional pad (D-pad) that incorporated both the standard cross and the faceted dish. Perfecting this approach required hundreds of iterations on just the angles of the D-pad.

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Just a handful of the hybrid D-pad prototypes.

And as a gamer himself, Ryan really wanted our golden hands — gamers who understand the nuances of the controller better than most — to feel at home when using the standard controller, too. “We wanted the heights, edges, and angles to be finely tuned to provide a performance boost across a wide range of personal playstyles and game genres,” he elaborates.

The final D-pad is a slightly deeper dish, which gives your thumb a nice little “home” to sit in and the angles are finely tuned to give you a good amount of leverage with minimal movement. “It combines the crisp precision and tactile feedback of the standard cross with easier access to diagonals and sweeps from the faceted dish,” beams Ryan. (BTW, it was one of his favorite parts of the new design. 🤫)

An outside-in design approach

While the design team took an inside-out approach to the console, the controller was designed from the outside in, including the handfeel of the surface, the force of each button, and perhaps most importantly, how the hand hugs the form.

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Size comparison of hand sizes in the 95th, 5th, and 3rd percentiles.

Building on the success of the Adaptive Controller, the team was intent on designing to include more people with the new wireless controller. To help more people play comfortably, they extended the hand size range down to the 3rd percentile (previous generations targeted the 5th to 95th percentile), which represents tens of millions of people across the world.

Originally, they tried decreasing the overall size by 2–5%, but “we quickly learned that what we couldn’t do is just shrink the controller,” Ryan recalls, “ because it threw the controls out of alignment with good ergonomic principles.”

So following the 80/20 rule, they started examining the 20 percent that could be trimmed down and began rounding bumpers, shaving down parts of the triggers, and re-sculpting the grips.

And then came the user testing. The team invited players from different backgrounds and with varying abilities to test prototypes and pre-production units. There are very few products people hold steadily for hours at a time, so the team wanted to know which prototypes felt comfortable for an extended period and how the new design impacted performance. “We wanted to know things like how fingers slid on certain areas and how the matte finish felt with their grips,” Erika explains.

The team observed how matte surfaces helped our customers maintain the same glide and slide throughout gameplay, so they applied it to the D-pad, bumpers and triggers. They also noticed how the tactile dot patterns on the triggers and bumpers broke up the surface tension of gamers’ hands, which reduces heat and sweat to improve the feel and performance, and implemented that too. “We really focused on small iterations that made sizable performance improvements on the last generation,” Erika explains.

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Microbumps on the trigger and bumper to help with grip.

The new controller weighs the same as previous generations, but the final sculpt of the handles encourages your hands to hug the front part more, which tilts the controller more toward your palms and creates a “it-just-wants-to-stick-to-my-hands” feeling (real quote).

These almost indiscernible changes preserve the recognizable silhouette while making our newest Xbox wireless controller the most universal and inclusive one ever.

Pics or it didn’t happen

“All of the buttons have been on the controller since the beginning, so to add a new button is a very deliberate decision for Xbox,” explains Ryan. “We wanted to make sure the why behind adding the button was an integral part of how people play games today.”

The team held early discussions about whether the share feature should be tapping a combination of buttons, but they wanted it to be quick and unobtrusive without UI popping up or jumping through menus while you’re playing. The smoothest way to accomplish this was with a physical button. Now, sharing those pics and clips is as quick and as familiar as sending a text or posting to social media.

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The new share button on the latest Xbox wireless controller.

Just as the consoles needed to live in harmony with its surroundings, the controller needed to feel like it was part of you, not another piece of hardware to wrangle. Because at the end of the day, it’s about the game. People want to experience the stories, be the character, do things that they can’t normally do, and as the industry moves into even more immersive gameplay scenarios with next generation consoles, the controller needs to keep up.

“I’ve played video games since I was six-years-old,” shares Ryan, “so it’s been an immense privilege to be part of the team responsible for taking input from gamers across the world and evolve such a beloved controller.”

Interested in learning about the consoles? You can check out the story here.

To stay in the know with Microsoft Design, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, or join our Office or Windows Insider program. And if you are interested in working with us at Microsoft, head over to aka.ms/DesignCareers.

Microsoft Design

Stories from the thinkers and tinkerers at Microsoft

Joline Tang

Written by

Former teacher, current cat owner. I manage the Microsoft Design publication on Medium on the side. My words are all me. She/her.

Microsoft Design

Stories from the thinkers and tinkerers at Microsoft. Sharing sketches, designs, and everything in between.

Joline Tang

Written by

Former teacher, current cat owner. I manage the Microsoft Design publication on Medium on the side. My words are all me. She/her.

Microsoft Design

Stories from the thinkers and tinkerers at Microsoft. Sharing sketches, designs, and everything in between.

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