Sending Mixed Messages with Overloaded Button Actions

Despite the fact that the Xbox 360 controller features some 11 digital buttons (plus a bunch of other stuff), games still manage to find ways to use them all. As a result, button overloading is a problem. When users anticipate one functionality and are given another, it shakes their confidence and breaks the immersion by reminding them of the controller in their hands.

If you’ve ever played Battlefield 3 for the Xbox 360 you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. When playing an online match, pressing the select/back button will spot enemy forces and even declare what those forces are so that your allies can keep an eye out. That’s a slick, incredibly useful communication tool. The first time you serve as a squad leader however, your cozy understanding of the spotting feature will be shattered and publicly ridiculed. You find yourself issuing accidental attack and defend orders and hopelessly unable to spot enemies sneaking up on your territory. If that isn’t enough to make you feel incompetent on the battlefield, you better hold that spotting finger when allies are nearby or you’re likely to request a ride from friendly vehicles or demand ammo and healing from your support players. In a game where split-second reactions mean everything this is a serious betrayal of trust between your interface and your users.

Games are increasingly complex, especially those that migrate from PC to console, and that means serious design challenges for game developers and muddy interfaces for gamers. A similar mishap crops up when playing the Xbox 360 adaptation of Minecraft. In any secondary mode, such as crafting, the B button is used to return to normal gameplay but during normal gameplay B throws the currently selected item onto the ground. While I’ll admit viewing your map is not a mode, it damn well feels like one. I know I’m not the only sod who’s tossed his map a few times. The designers weren’t trying to be cute here though and I think it’s worth noting that you can still lose your user when you give them straight-forward mechanics with mixed visual cues.

Users are repeatedly let down when developers try to cleverly attach multiple meanings to a single control without presenting clear breaking points. In BF3 players contend with button assignments that change not when they want them to but when the designers want them to. Changing an interface without asking (or clearly informing) the user is a great way to invite error and errors don’t make happy users.

There is good news though: one clever manufacturer has solved this problem by making every button do the same thing. As long as you want your Xbox 360 controller made out of soap. You’re welcome.

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