Dreaming of Dashboard 2.0

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When I came home with my shiny new Xbox 360 waaaaaay back in 2005, one of my favorite features of the console was the dashboard. The blades were an amazing leap from the clumsy interface of the original Xbox, offering all sorts of expanded control, options, and content that I didn’t even imagine in the previous generation’s hardware.

But nothing lasts forever, and after a few years of noble service, the Xbox 360 dashboard is really starting to show its age and, worse, its limitations. You can find hints of these shortcomings in Microsoft’s recent actions. The back-to-back May announcements of no Spring update and the delisting of selected Xbox Live Arcade titles suggested larger issues. Even the comments made by Microsoft executives on the topic were telling—like when Xbox Live GM Marc Whitten said of the decision not to offer a Spring dashboard update that they were instead:

“building the proper infrastructure and scale for the service.”

Or when Aaron Greenberg commented on the delisting of Xbox Live Arcade games:

“I think that we are not, I would say…happy with the ability to find and discover content as easily as we’d like for consumers to be able to do that.”

So, Microsoft acknowledges the problem. Is there a solution? I think so. Lots of them, actually. We’ve spent some time on our recent podcasts talking about the need for a dashboard 2.0. I decided to take it a step further, look at what exists currently, and suggest some ways to improve things—yes, for Microsoft—but primarily for Xbox 360 users.

*note: I’m in no way imagining that what I propose below is the solution, or even necessarily a solution. My point, instead, is that solutions exist—and we need ‘em.*

Examining the 360 dashboard as it looks today

I started by dissecting the current dashboard, breaking it down into four main color-coded components: gold user space (your gamercard, messages, etc.), blue interactive space (menus, buttons, and the like), red advertising space (the real estate Microsoft is using to ply their wares), and purple unused space. Chopping it up that way looked something like this (click any screen below for the 720p version):

sliced & diced

Rearranging those fields demonstrates one of the dashboard’s chief problems for an Xbox 360 user:

stacked against you

the bars--they burrrrn!

When I fire up my console, I don’t want to be greeted by the Xbox 360 dashboard. I want to be greeted by my dashboard. So why is my share of the screen the smallest by far? I suppose you could argue that you can buy themes to adorn the blades as well, but they get completely obscured by both the interface and, more egregiously, the advertising. I’d rather not see advertising on my dashboard at all, but I’ll address that later.

The amount of unused space is alarming as well. As a graphic designer, I fully understand the importance and function of white space, but what exists in the current dashboard isn’t really that. It’s just . . . dead. Those pixels could be put to much better use. I’m certain that some measure of this is due to their desire to create an interface that is 4:3 SDTV-friendly—and that’s an admirable concern. But I think it’s a bad idea to hinder the experience of a high-def owner. If anything, the interface should be designed for widescreen HD and scaled down to accommodate those poor, unfortunate 480i souls.

So, what would you do, smartypants?

Acknowledging that I’m not a particularly technical person (I’m sure all this is a real pain to implement in reality), it still occurs to me that there are some relatively simple fixes that could result in a much better user experience from the dashboard. So I pulled the existing dashboard apart and reassembled it—while trying to maintain the look and feel of the 360 dash—to reflect some of the features I think are must-haves in a revised console interface. Here’s a look at a possible redesigned dashboard:

Created by three Halo fans from Libertyville, IL

Some of the added features you’ll notice right off the bat include

  • a search function—both to search what’s on your console and on the Marketplace. I know it’s a pain to type with the controller, but I’d still wager I can fumble around the d-pad to spell “Precipice” before I can navigate to Penny Arcade Adventures using the blades.
  • hot keys—navigating the dashboard uses primarily the A, B, LT, and RT buttons. It would be nice to be able to assign X, Y, LB, and RB to specific functions in the dashboard or Marketplace, like bookmarks in a web browser. For example, if I like to check what’s new in the Marketplace every week, I could map that to the X button and jump right to it. Or if I want to go straight to my XBLA games, I could map that to the Y button and forget about moving through a number of screens to find them. As shown in this example, I’ve just mapped them to the other blades on the main dashboard.
  • disc tray detail—the PS3 lets you see a nifty little video icon to show what’s in the system. I’d settle for some box art or one screen, along with some details on my progress in the game.
  • reversal of ad and user space—in this example, the dashboard would be dominated by my content with a larger, clearly visible wallpaper or theme, and a bigger gamerpic. I’ll relent and say that there could be some advertising on the dashboard, but I’d limit it to a standard web-size banner ad and the Inside Xbox feature with rolling updated headlines, because I’d hate to miss out on Major Nelson awkwardly staring into the camera.

This division of space makes more sense to me. It feels more like my dashboard and less like an advertising platform I have to wade through to play my games. Mapped out as previously done with the existing dash, it looks like this:

sliced and diced...again

Again, rearranging those fields yields this:

re-stacked. less wack.

mo betta'

A much better, and more appropriate balance. It’s worth mentioning that this approach also yields basically no wasted space—it’s all been reclaimed for the user. ¡Viva la revolución!

Is that all you got?

Not exactly. I haven’t given extensive thought to every blade (I question my sanity for doing this much mucking about, fer chrissakes), but I did also spend some time thinking about what features the Marketplace needs to serve me better. Here’s a peek:

Wanna buy a monkey?

Some of the added elements here that would make shopping much more handy are

  • user ratings—Microsoft has often talked about XBLA (and XNA) becoming “the YouTube of gaming.” Content on YouTube lives or dies based on user ratings. That same law should be applied to XBLA—anyone who has purchased the full game should have the chance to rate it. Frankly, I’d be more comfortable seeing a game get delisted as a result of lousy user ratings than I would as a result of lousy Metacritic scores.
  • better sorting—I think a number of sorting options would aid my shopping experience immensely. Let me sort by date, user rating, alphabetically, etc. Also, make it easy for me to see what’s free on the Marketplace.
  • show me the money—I want to know what a game costs without clicking to its page to find out. Similarly, I’d like to have my points balance on the screen at all times, not just when I’m preparing to buy something.
  • ok, NOW advertise—once I’m in the store, I’m fair game. You wanna load up the Marketplace with a wall of ads? Do your worst. Just keep it away from the other blades.

With E3 only a couple weeks away, I’m keeping my fingers crossed that we’ll see a revamped dashboard from Microsoft for the Xbox 360—one that is more focused on me, and less on them. What would you want from “dashboard 2.0″? Drop us a comment and let us know. And if you want to spread the word (and the love), digg it.

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