AN: How did you approach the design for the HBO Go app for Xbox?
ME: Our approach when designing for the Xbox 360 was a slightly scaled-down, faster version of our usual process. The three phases of development are discover, design and prototype. In the discover phase, as we do with any new platform, we explored the Xbox 360 as much as possible, to understand what we could and couldn’t do. We always try to think big and then scale down, rather than designing within the exact constraints. In the design phase, we paid a lot of attention to the content organization. The Xbox has pretty well-defined user interface components, so we took ample time to figure out how to fit the content in the best possible way. After that, we started prototyping. We validated the best ideas, discarded the weaker ones and moved on with the design that ended up being released.
AN: What is different about designing for an app than online or TV?
ME: Designing for the Xbox 360, which is displayed on a TV screen, requires an extra level of attention. It’s a lean-back experience, with a restricted input method and a small display. Even though the TV screen display isn’t actually that small, everything appears smaller because viewers sit farther away from it than they typically do with a computer screen.
AN: What should designers be thinking about when designing for the Xbox?
ME: The main thing is to understand the platform. Some design guidelines made by the Xbox team may feel restrictive at first, but they are pieces of a larger puzzle that works. I’d recommend learning as much as you can about the Xbox 360 guidelines, in order to be able to push the boundaries and create great apps. One major tip is to get a real TV screen, sit at a typical distance from it and test everything on the TV, rather than your computer screen. Colors tend to wash out and text sizes that look amazing on your monitor will probably be unreadable on the TV.
AN: You said that 20 is the magic number. Why?
ME: One of the best features of the Xbox 360 is the voice recognition. We were very excited when we found out that it was available for the apps, as well. To make sure it stays precise and efficient, all screens on your app should have fewer than 20 usable items displayed. If you follow this rule, you will keep the voice recognition working at maximum precision.
AN: What kinds of branding opportunities exist for Xbox apps and how can designers take advantage of this?
ME: It’s all about studying the guidelines, in order to be able to push their limits. While the basics – like backgrounds, colors and fonts — are completely customizable, the Xbox 360 can provide much more room for amazing branding work. For instance, take advantage of the loading screen by creating exciting animations or brand videos. Background sound is another branding opportunity that is rarely utilized. Background audio is usually seen as a deadly sin when designing for the Web, but it can work in the TV environment, if done correctly.