Inside Microsoft’s Inclusive Technologies Lab in Redmond, Washington, a sign says, “When you do not intentionally, deliberately include … you will unintentionally exclude.” This reflects the thinking behind the Xbox Adaptive Controller, a new accessory for Xbox One game consoles to help those with limited mobility get back in the game. A lot of players with physical challenges can’t press all of the 19 buttons on a traditional Xbox controller.
Bryce Johnson and Evelyn Thomas were part of a team of researchers who helped design and evangelize the product within Microsoft. And now Microsoft is announcing it will launch the controller as an open platform that will enable people to plug in a wide variety of controller options to help people with limited mobility play games.
The controller enables people who don’t have thumbs, fingers, limbs, or good motor control to plug in alternatives that they can control. And that enables them to play games on the Xbox One consoles that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to play. As many as a billion people with disabilities live in the world, and even more are sometimes temporarily disabled (like those with broken arms), and the Xbox Adaptive Controller is built in a way that allows them to create their own custom solutions for playing games.
The controller started as an idea at a hackathon in 2015, and it slowly gathered steam as Satya Nadella, Microsoft’s then-new CEO, put effort into changing Microsoft’s culture to be more human. I visited the lab last week and heard presentations from many people on the team that made the controller. I also sat down with Johnson for a one-on-one interview.
“I will say that with the Xbox adaptive controller, it’s definitely benefiting more than one person,” Johnson told me. “But we did it one person at a time. What we like to think about when we talk about our inclusive design philosophy — this is very specific, but we’re not trying to design for all of us. We aspire to design for each of us.”
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: The last visit was getting ready for this product discussion, I suppose?
Bryce Johnson: The lab itself is a place we bring people in to explore all types of disabilities. While the lab was being built at the same time as the Xbox adaptive controller – they were in conjunction – we do lots of things in accessibility, all at the same time. While we were creating the lab, we were working on Copilot [which lets two people with two different controllers control the same character or function in a game]. We were working on the Xbox adaptive controller. All these things were in various stages of motion.
GamesBeat: The bigger picture about why you do this, why you convinced the leadership of the company to put resources behind it, can you talk about that? How receptive were they to why this is important?
Johnson: Starting from the top down, obviously Satya Nadella [Microsoft’s new CEO] is hugely passionate about accessibility. He believes that accessibility is an innovation driver for us here at Microsoft. It’s been great to have that leadership from him, empowering every individual and organization on the planet to achieve more. But beyond that, we’ve had great leaders at all levels. They’re really passionate about this project.
When we did the original hack, Leo Del Castillo, who was the—he ran Xbox hardware at the time. He really wanted to put resources behind it, to make sure we at least explored this idea. He gave us the interns to continue to hack, and beyond that, he helped us drive this through our product development process. Now that Dennis Meinhardt has taken over, Dennis has been amazing at making sure we deliver and really land the Xbox adaptive controller strong.
Other parts of hardware are noticing. We actually received a little award for the lab, from Panos Panay. He has an award called the Grab an Oar award, because he has a saying. If you need help, or if you need to get somewhere, grab an oar. For a while we were holding that award. I think they gave it to someone else this year. But we grabbed an oar. It’s great to see the excitement, not only from the organization, but from our leadership, on making sure we’re inclusive of everyone in what we build here at Microsoft. We’re putting that new priority in line with other traditional priorities.
GamesBeat: Tell me more about the 80/20 notion.
Johnson: It’s just an old product axiom. It’s the idea that you can’t please everybody. What they would say was, you design for the 80 percent. The whole thing was that 80 percent of people — you could cover 80 percent of people with a certain feature or design approach, whatever. That’s what the 80/20 rule is. When we look at inclusive design here at Microsoft, it really is about understanding that, if you do that, if you do that 80 percent, you’re going to get the stuff everyone needs, but you’re really not going to get the special things that set you apart. Sometimes those other things are the innovations.
When we look at outliers, when we understand the needs of outliers, and we take what they need and build for them, then we turn it around and look back at the 80 percent. We can ask, “How do we make this thing that we just built for the 20 percent work better for everyone?” That becomes really powerful. It’s just taking those insights around someone with extreme needs and making something for everyone’s needs.
GamesBeat: Do you see that as maybe a justification for this work? Or do you think the work in itself, helping even one person, is worthwhile?
Johnson: I will say that with the Xbox adaptive controller, it’s definitely benefiting more than one person. But we did it one person at a time. What we like to think about when we talk about our inclusive design philosophy — this is very specific, but we’re not trying to design for all of us. We aspire to design for each of us. We really want to go out there and make sure the needs of each individual — make sure that the things we make for them fit each person. We like that idea of fit.
When we designed the Xbox adaptive controller, we looked at many individuals. We had a large pool in our beta program. We worked with all these non-profits we’ve talked about today – Warfighter Engaged, Able Gamers, SpecialEffect, Cerebral Palsy Foundation, Craig Hospital. We met a lot of people. We made this device fit a lot of different people. We took all of that stuff and compiled it into the device. That’s what sort of shaped the form.
GamesBeat: You’re helping a large number of outliers here. But would you think about — maybe you have to do something like Kinect, or how you’re interacting in virtual reality with your hands, as the ultimate solution for even more outliers. People who have no chance of using something like a controller.
Johnson: What we’ve learned along this journey is that one size never fits all. We need to give people a variety of ways to interact with everything we do. When we think about new input modalities, of course, we’re always considering new input modalities. That’s one thing we as a company, here at Microsoft, have been particularly strong at.
We think about multiple modalities at the same time: keyboard, mouse, voice, touch, gaze, gesture, all kinds of things. We have this opportunity in front of us to make sure that what we make works with all of those input modalities, in a way that adjusts and fits you. That’s our north star with a lot of this work, that idea of, “Well, what input do you want to use?”
GamesBeat: It seems like there’s a certain elegance here, too. It’s user-configurable. You’re not changing something that will anger a large majority of people.
Johnson: We were really intentional about understanding the community and what they use today, making sure that we met the needs of what they use today and what potential there was for new things in the future. We feel really strongly that we’ve done the right balance of allowing people to bring what they’ve invested in already, what they’ve spent their money on, to this new controller, and then given people who make devices, third party peripherals, like our Designed for Xbox partners, real opportunities to do some things that are exciting and new.
GamesBeat: Did you come across any things that made you think, “Well, we shouldn’t do that because it gives someone too big an advantage”?
Johnson: We think about input all the time. One thing we do — we definitely deal with that notion of too big an advantage on the Xbox itself. There are lots of tools that we’ve already talked about in other forums about how we think about — if someone might be gaming the system in a way that makes it unfair for other players. Now, our device is an Xbox controller, so it works the same way that other Xbox controllers do, but in the same way that we have other systems in place to detect that type of input, that will also be in place for the Xbox adaptive controller.
GamesBeat: So you still have to design with tradeoffs in mind? Anti-cheating and so on.
Johnson: We certainly share that need that our players have. We want to make sure– again, going back to that “gaming for everyone” theme – that Xbox is a place where everyone can have fun. So yes, that’s an important part, finding the right balance. That’s an important part of gameplay. What we’re focused on here today, though, is reaching out to people with limited mobility and making sure this audience that we haven’t addressed as much as we could have in the past — that we’re coming out strong for them now.
GamesBeat: As far as the numbers of people, could you explain that again? Numbers of disabled people?
Johnson: The number in the world, according to the World Health Organization, is around a billion people. Out of 7.4 billion people, they say around a billion have some form of disability. The one thing that — if that number seems large, it’s a matter of how we think about limitation. They say 70 percent of people with disabilities are invisible. What that means is, if I’m neurodivergent, I don’t outwardly appear as disabled. If I’m hard of hearing, I don’t appear to be disabled, but I am.
When we think about temporary and situational, that number just hits home. Things like arthritis. When we talk about disabilities, it can be things like arthritis, which might not necessarily affect you profoundly day to day, but I’ll tell you that our gamers who—I’ve talked to gamers with arthritis who say, “When I can play for two hours, those are the best two hours of my day.” If I can give those people three hours, I’ve made their day that much better.
GamesBeat: I imagine that if there are some very numbers-conscious people here, that argument helps convince them that this is a good idea.
Johnson: We like to frame stuff, for sure. But I will say, and as Chris said this morning too, the organization got behind this idea because we knew it was the right thing to do. I have a ton of gratitude for our leadership actually embracing this inclusive journey with us, because I realize, with everyone around here, it is a big mind shift. I certainly would not want people to think that it’s not. I’m thankful that people are willing to engage in this type of thinking with us, to think about how we address our customers and bring people into Xbox in new ways. It’s wonderful.
GamesBeat: Do you think that if you help one person, you help everybody, in a way?
Johnson: One of the things that we say is that exclusion harms us all. When we exclude someone, even if it’s unintentionally — because obviously a lot of our exclusions are unintentional — you have to think not only about how you harm that person, but also how you harm a greater number of people. In the same way, when we include someone, whether permanently, temporarily, or situationally, the opposite happens. If the logic works one way, it works both ways.