Nintendo's Struggles With UI

When you switched on the original Nintendo DS, you were greeted with a front-end that was simple; almost humble: a clock, calendar, and a few extra settings. You didn't even have to look at any of it and just go right to your game if you wanted to. But changing those extra settings required the system to turn itself off afterward, as it wouldn't -- couldn't -- automatically restart.

Four years later, the Nintendo DSi arrived and rethought the hardware and software design, including a system menu molded into one long horizontal line of slots for games. It was straightforward, but the problem was figuring out how you'd want to organize your stuff. It looked awfully disorganized despite its simple form, but at least you could tap anywhere on the navigation bar to jump to a specific spot.

Recently, we entered the next generation. The Nintendo 3DS system menu isn't too far removed from the DSi's design, except that it lets you transform the former line of icons into a shrinkable grid, allowing you to see everything at once. It doesn't really add or take away from the navigation, but there's one added annoyance: a few seconds of loading for each and every app you choose.

But when you take the DSi and Wii online, it's an even more questionable experience. Nintendo's "Shops" are too simplified, with giant buttons on pages and search functions buried under layers of more buttons. Even finding the newest releases requires poking around a few screens. And on DSi, shop items can only be browsed two per page, with no vertical scrolling. None of it looks like a mess since it's all on simple white backgrounds, but it functions like some sort of anti-organization scheme. To be fair, both Xbox Live and the PlayStation Store have their organizational issues, as well, but at least they try to improve the system with an update every once in a while. Nintendo's online catalogs are as bad as they were when they first launched.

This stuff hasn't gone unnoticed. Some gamers gripe that Nintendo doesn't understand, or they outright deny that advances in software technology go hand-in-hand with managing lots of content on one device. Back in the days of the Game Boy, when you could only play one game at a time (the one in the cartridge slot) it didn't matter how you organized or accessed your library. Now, things are changing, and every system has an OS with several different programs on it at once, with space for more.

For the most part, I agree with the complainers, but my natural pessimism just causes me to shrug it off. And in all fairness, the 3DS has the easiest-to-understand menus of all Nintendo's portables. It introduces some welcome features, like the ability to suspend a game in progress, a friendly character to guide you through setting up an internet connection, and the aforementioned shrinking of the app grid. But it's far from a high watermark, and has left me hoping that Nintendo will soon learn the value of excellent user interface design in something that you'll see and use every day.

The most obvious counterpoint, though, is that they don't need to. Nintendo is nothing but a game company, and that's been their M.O. for many years. They never made computers and they never made phones. All they make is games and game systems. Yet that doesn't stop the comparisons from popping up -- people expect Nintendo to be a game-focused version of Apple. A lot of similarities exist in the way Nintendo and Apple do business, and Nintendo does seem to take cues from Apple in subtle ways, like the minimalist design of the DS Lite and its original ivory color. Even the DSi and 3DS menus seem inspired by iOS, with games and app icons arrayed in a grid of rounded squares, not unlike an iPhone...or some other phone trying to mimic it.

Does Nintendo do this on purpose? Are they trying to whittle down their interfaces to keep a focus on the games, only to have it all backfire? Maybe it's possible that they strive to make these interfaces as "all-ages" as possible, so that a barely-literate child or inexperienced elderly person can get an idea of how to work things. That line of thinking has legs, because that's also the thinking behind "friend codes," which boils down any DS user to a number and doesn't provide any built-in way to chat at length with others. For Nintendo, it's a way to protect kids from unwanted communication. For everyone else, it's an incredibly annoying step backward from a normal online service.

Maybe Nintendo's designers just have no practical idea of what makes a good UI? After all, they're not hiring away Apple or Google engineers to rethink the menus for their systems, because, again, they probably don't "need" to. If it works, and it's hitting the deadline, they'll go with it. Or in the case of 3DS, they'll go with it, then plan a better version soon after. On the other hand, they may have a good UI idea, but try to be a little too original. Even the most mundane part of 3DS, the Settings menu, has its own music, along with the camera, the music player, the activity log, and so on -- some of them featuring little cartoon characters that hang out, ready to help. It's cute, and in a way it tells you what Nintendo's all about, but "cute" only goes so far.

I find it as fascinating as I do befuddling, but as much as I think Nintendo should be putting a bit more effort into the non-game parts of their systems, I doubt they'll change anytime soon. When they do change, it's an incremental pace, and these days, they seem more interested in using technology in ways few others have tried or succeeded with, rather than copying what's already been a hit. A lot of people don't realize that, though, especially journalists outside the game industry who razz Nintendo for their iffy interfaces, last-generation graphics, and unwillingness to take a leap, rather than a step, into the future. My response to that is simple: Really, guys, don't hold your breath.

Maybe Nintendo's slow progress won't help them win the battle of user-friendliness, but one thing you can count on is that their games will be friendly to anyone.

This article originally appeared on GamePro.com as Op-Ed: Nintendo's Struggles with UI

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