User Interface Week - The Playstation Brand

Posted by DrRandle (1202 posts) -

The Ups and Downs of the Cross Media Bar

If there's one thing I'm kind of obsessive over in video games, it's the user interface. I like 'em snappy, stylish, easy to navigate, and easy to comprehend. The user interface, or UI, is the first experience beyond any cutscenes; it's what tells you a character's health, or ammo, or gives you a small map of the location. For this week, I'm going to be taking a close look at the User Interfaces of the major consoles, which I think are important as they're literally the gatekeepers to everything that console has and can do. Growing up, consoles just booted up your game as soon as you turned them on, but these days a console can do so much that they've had to build these environments for you to navigate, similar in a lot of ways to a operating system like Windows.

Today we look at the Sony console interfaces for the PSP and the PS3. I would love to talk about the Vita, whose interface actually does interest me some, but I don't yet have the device and haven't spent nearly enough time combing it.

Sony's interface for the PS3 and PSP is relatively the same, focused on what they call the "Cross Media Bar" or XMB. The picture below shows the same theme I have, which is customizable, but the icons themselves remain in the same places and work the same way. I appreciate the customization, which allows for custom icons as well as rotating backgrounds.

The way the Cross Media Bar works is by a central line running horizontally that can be navigated by hitting left and right on your d-pad or left stick. This moves you along categories like your system settings, photos, music, movies, games, and the PlayStation Network. Scrolling horizontally over a category takes you through the meat of the options, where each selection has any number of things to choose from. Scrolling up and down through the Game icon takes you between the built in game options, like viewing your trophies or selecting your disc game, as well as through any downloadable titles you've acquired. Taking you through the video selection shows you apps like Netflix and Hulu, as well as any downloaded movies.

For the most part this interface is useful, but not it doesn't do anything terribly flashy. There's nothing really 'fun' about the XMB. There is a satisfying click when you move between icons, which really helps make this a more tactile experience, but overall there's a lot of wasted space on the PS3, and it can be difficult to read if your couch is too far back due to small fonts. The interface is much better suited for the PSP, which has less options to get lost in, and fills the screen up better so you know what you're looking at no problem.

Notice the much better use of screen real estate? Even on the two pictures in this article, this one is miles better to read.

By far, my largest problem with this interface is the settings bar, especially on the PS3, where it's so easy to just lose the option you're looking for in the pile. It feels like there really should be a condensing of these options into smaller sub categories. I'm not one for burying your options under a mountain of sub-menus, but there is something to be said for organization beyond 2 layers.

One of the things I think is really neat about the interface happens when you're selecting individual games from the game menu. The background turns into one representing that game, and sometimes has a little audio queue to add to it. A touch like that just kind of gets you in the mood for whatever you're selecting, so it serves as a great little prelude to your overall experience. Little touches like that to mix up your interfaces and make them a part of the experience can go a long way to the overall enjoyment of your users.

Aside from these little treats, however, the overall PlayStation brand of interfaces is bare bones, and a bit muddled despite their best attempts to simplify and organize it. The XMB is better suited for the portable than the console. What's nice is that it was uniquely designed for a controller, which makes it an incredibly usable interface for said controller.

What do you think of the PlayStation interfaces? Does the Vita's improve on the formula at all? Tomorrow we'll be talking about the Xbox 360's interface, and then the Wii and 3DS's shortly thereafter.

-Make it a good one.

#1 Posted by DrRandle (1202 posts) -

The Ups and Downs of the Cross Media Bar

If there's one thing I'm kind of obsessive over in video games, it's the user interface. I like 'em snappy, stylish, easy to navigate, and easy to comprehend. The user interface, or UI, is the first experience beyond any cutscenes; it's what tells you a character's health, or ammo, or gives you a small map of the location. For this week, I'm going to be taking a close look at the User Interfaces of the major consoles, which I think are important as they're literally the gatekeepers to everything that console has and can do. Growing up, consoles just booted up your game as soon as you turned them on, but these days a console can do so much that they've had to build these environments for you to navigate, similar in a lot of ways to a operating system like Windows.

Today we look at the Sony console interfaces for the PSP and the PS3. I would love to talk about the Vita, whose interface actually does interest me some, but I don't yet have the device and haven't spent nearly enough time combing it.

Sony's interface for the PS3 and PSP is relatively the same, focused on what they call the "Cross Media Bar" or XMB. The picture below shows the same theme I have, which is customizable, but the icons themselves remain in the same places and work the same way. I appreciate the customization, which allows for custom icons as well as rotating backgrounds.

The way the Cross Media Bar works is by a central line running horizontally that can be navigated by hitting left and right on your d-pad or left stick. This moves you along categories like your system settings, photos, music, movies, games, and the PlayStation Network. Scrolling horizontally over a category takes you through the meat of the options, where each selection has any number of things to choose from. Scrolling up and down through the Game icon takes you between the built in game options, like viewing your trophies or selecting your disc game, as well as through any downloadable titles you've acquired. Taking you through the video selection shows you apps like Netflix and Hulu, as well as any downloaded movies.

For the most part this interface is useful, but not it doesn't do anything terribly flashy. There's nothing really 'fun' about the XMB. There is a satisfying click when you move between icons, which really helps make this a more tactile experience, but overall there's a lot of wasted space on the PS3, and it can be difficult to read if your couch is too far back due to small fonts. The interface is much better suited for the PSP, which has less options to get lost in, and fills the screen up better so you know what you're looking at no problem.

Notice the much better use of screen real estate? Even on the two pictures in this article, this one is miles better to read.

By far, my largest problem with this interface is the settings bar, especially on the PS3, where it's so easy to just lose the option you're looking for in the pile. It feels like there really should be a condensing of these options into smaller sub categories. I'm not one for burying your options under a mountain of sub-menus, but there is something to be said for organization beyond 2 layers.

One of the things I think is really neat about the interface happens when you're selecting individual games from the game menu. The background turns into one representing that game, and sometimes has a little audio queue to add to it. A touch like that just kind of gets you in the mood for whatever you're selecting, so it serves as a great little prelude to your overall experience. Little touches like that to mix up your interfaces and make them a part of the experience can go a long way to the overall enjoyment of your users.

Aside from these little treats, however, the overall PlayStation brand of interfaces is bare bones, and a bit muddled despite their best attempts to simplify and organize it. The XMB is better suited for the portable than the console. What's nice is that it was uniquely designed for a controller, which makes it an incredibly usable interface for said controller.

What do you think of the PlayStation interfaces? Does the Vita's improve on the formula at all? Tomorrow we'll be talking about the Xbox 360's interface, and then the Wii and 3DS's shortly thereafter.

-Make it a good one.

#2 Edited by Sooty (8082 posts) -

Say what you will about the XMB but it's still better than that colossal mess of a dashboard the 360 uses. 90% ads, 10% stuff you actually want.

and the PlayStation Store is much nicer to use than the 360 Marketplace as well.

#3 Edited by churrific (475 posts) -

Barebones is always better than clusterfuck I say. My only suggestion would be to increase the vertical size to take up more space, as you said, but not to the extent the way it's covering the whole psp screen. I like that space to enjoy looking at my theme as well, esp. if I have a dynamic background going. A happy compromise in the middle to make couch reading a little easier for those that need it.

As for the settings, I actually prefer more options initially. It might look like a mess, but it's one less click to get to the next layer of condensed material. Lol that's just me and my laziness though.

#4 Posted by killacam (1284 posts) -

i looooooove the xmb and the fact that right now it's many pictures of space, but at the slightest whim i could change it to a picture of catherine (with a c) getting boned.

#5 Edited by believer258 (11630 posts) -

If you're this picky about the XMB then I can't wait to see you tear the 360's interface to shreds. For the record, the XMB is probably the best console interface this generation. I understand your issues with it feeling somewhat too full, but it's still very, very easy to learn and get a hold of. The only real issue is remembering where that one never-used setting that you want is, and frankly that's unavoidable when you want to have as many options as the PS3 does.

#6 Posted by mrpandaman (864 posts) -

I really don't mind the XMB at all. There's really nothing to get confused by. I don't think it's that hard to get used to and it doesn't take that to navigate. There hasn't been a need to change the actual interface other than making it look more flashy, but if they do it at the cost of functionality then that would suck.

I do agree with the settings tab that there are several things that could be just sub-categories, but for the most part it is really not a big problem.

#7 Posted by ThePhantomStranger (353 posts) -

The only issue I have with the current xmb is that they splintered off the video section into video and tv/video services...it's just feels a little silly

#8 Posted by Hunter5024 (5539 posts) -

This is the easiest interface to navigate through this generation by far. However you're definitely right about the number of options available in every vertical slot. Sub menus would definitely help, and if they don't want to do those automatically they could at least give you the option, if not now then on the next platform. I also never noticed all of the negative space because I sit so close to my screen, they really should find a way to use it more effectively. Hopefully not with advertisements.

Online
#9 Posted by Spoonman671 (4555 posts) -

I really like the XMB.  I just wish it was as simple as it was around two years ago.  It hasn't been a drastic change, but it appears a bit more muddled than it was before.
 
As for the Vita, I wish I didn't have to tap an application's icon to enter it's "Live Area,"  and then tap again to tell it to start the application.  I also wish certain things like your friends list and trophy list were system-level components, and not separate applications that you have to open manually.

#10 Posted by Ninja_Welshman (479 posts) -

Never had a problem with the XMB but then it's all I've known this generation. They'll probably start put ads in there at some point. I mean, they have to, right? Just hope I'll be able to block them as a + subscriber.

#11 Posted by DrRandle (1202 posts) -

Oh don't you worry. I'm critical of the XMB because it has some neat ideas that are muddled in some areas, and not expanded enough in others, not because it's bad.

I'm doing one at a time, so you'll see my XBOX one (which I just posted!) is much less favorable.

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