Best Available Interface
The Nintendo Switch feels satisfying to use, which makes it extraordinary.
Nintendo’s new gaming system, Switch, is what I should have dreamed of as a kid. It’s joyful, it’s friendly, and it dazzles because it decided to approach play from the vantage point of childish daydreams — fancifully, and with complete disregard to what exists, what came before, or what’s technically feasible. Nintendo’s innovation here cannot be understated. They are designing the curve you’re trying to get ahead of.
Consider this a wake-up call to design-professionals and idea-workers everywhere.
I’m not going to spend this post extolling the virtues of the thoughtful and elegant hardware design considerations (there are many) or Nintendo’s continued commitment to lighthearted, pick-up-and-play game library (easy fun with hidden depths). Instead, I want to draw attention to the freedom it gives players, not just in terms of screen choice or the lack of wires, but the dynamic flexibility of its hardware components. For the first time gamers don’t just get to engage with content in their preferred environment or on their preferred screen, but with their preferred tool. Let’s call it experience plasticity. And what impressed me wasn’t the convenience offered, but how surprisingly satisfying it feels.
The Switch is the debut of a “best available interface” experience as part of a single product offering. The controllers can be used separately by a single person for motion-control play, docked to a single controller for traditional single-player play, used separately and turned sideways for 2-player play, or docked to the side of the screen/console for bring-wherever-you-want mobile play. The screen is the system. It is its own handheld device. The controller is its own second controller. And the controls can be combined, attached, or detached as needed. (Options can vary within games too: in Super Mario Odyssey you can throw Mario’s hat with the Y button OR with the flick of your wrist when holding the controls Wii-remote style.) Unlike streaming video content which is merely watched and the only user interface is a menu, games require perpetual physical interaction. So the interface — the input controls — matter.
The idea of “best available screen” was coined and explored with the steep rise in adoption of streaming services about 5 years ago, alongside other cool circa-2012 terminology like “co-viewing” and “digital living room” when smartphone adoption matured and the iPad became a thing. The idea was that people didn’t necessarily prefer one screen over another as a rule, they simply chose to use the best available screen they had in a given circumstance. While on the couch the TV makes sense for watching your show… unless the remote is further than your tablet, in which case the tablet wins out due to its being within reach. And when in line at the bank without a tablet or a big screen TV, streaming Netflix on your Samsung Galaxy smartphone is the best option. It wasn’t a question of preference but of availability and optionality. Suddenly content was freed from the confines of local storage and beamed through the internet to any one of our individual receiver screens. It was, and is, miraculous and wonderful and convenient.
What Nintendo has done is not only applied this freedom to play… but applied it to a single device. It’s a literal game-changer. Rather than deciding to sell a gaming console & an additional controller & motion control remotes & a portable gaming device with its own games… or rather than bundling all of those separate things together into one box and calling it a day… it made a single system that can transform. Nintendo combined the digital insight of “best available interface” with the hardware insight that elegance comes from modular efficiency and not the baroque proliferation of add-ons.
That Nintendo was able to pull this off so smoothly and effectively is nothing short of astounding, as anyone who’s toggled their TV’s “input” options to no avail or struggled to share their computer screen with a colleague or conference room projector should be able to appreciate. The Switch manages to instantly shift from TV to handheld mode without a single button press — just lift the screen from its dock — and two controllers can slide smoothly from a single handheld controller shell, or out of their individual competitive play grips, and click into the side of the screen to pick up where the game left off. No configuring, no mode selecting. A toddler or grandfather could do it. Nintendo had to make sure of it.
Freedom — to move, to think, to choose — isn’t fun, it’s satisfying. And feeling satisfied with an experience is a deep, reliable driver of enjoyment. The springy bounce back at the bottom of a page that Apple spent time perfecting is a satisfying interaction. They famously turned the end of something into a pleasurable experience, as users repeatedly bounced their pages with glee. Is it fun? Kinda. It’s mostly just satisfying, like squeezing a ball of dough or gently cracking the top of creme brûlée with your spoon. There is something deeply satisfying with the level of flexibility and freedom that Nintendo has engineered. The Lego-like composability of the gaming system feels like a toy itself, so the entire experience is one of playfulness. Nintendo is not in the business of games they are in the business of play, which is why they were able to truly innovate with the introduction of the Switch. By optimizing for feelings of satisfaction and paying attention to what a system feels like to use, then novelty and innovation will naturally happen. Innovation and novelty are outcomes, not a strategy.
There are other indications that Nintendo questioned long-held industry conventions when designing their console experience from the ground up. Unlike other gaming consoles, the instructions are printed on a single side panel of the box rather than in a long-winded paper manual. Unlike other gaming consoles, games are on movement-free miniature cartridge cards instead of spinning compact discs. Unlike other gaming consoles, the wireless controllers dock directly to the system instead of connecting with a cord. It’s almost as if they didn’t want to stop doing things differently — better — once they got the hang of rethinking the status quo.
It took two days — one weekend — of owning a Switch to feel all the feels I’ve spelled out here. I thought it was important for non-gamers and people who haven’t even heard of the Switch to know what Nintendo is up to. There’s a lot to learn and appreciate in terms of product design, user experience, product-market strategy, and consumer behavior. It’s another reminder that valuable insight tends to lurk in those moments of play, delight, and subtle satisfaction when we’re fully engaged with an experience and, probably, smiling.