The good enough design of the Nintendo Switch

April 12, 2017

With their new Switch video game console, Nintendo has demonstrated once again why they are one of the most innovative companies in consumer electronics.

The console’s hybrid hardware offers a multitude of gaming experiences. The Switch also serves as an illustration of the compromises that are often associated with modular systems design.

I was lucky enough to buy a Nintendo Switch during the midnight product launch event on March 3 before it quickly sold out at retailers everywhere. After using the Switch for the past few weeks, reading various media reviews, and talking to some fellow enthusiasts, the hype surrounding the product is well-founded. The Switch is loads of fun, especially if you’re a fan of Nintendo’s The Legend of Zelda action-adventure game series, the latest installment of which launched at the same time as the new system. Playing The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild on the Switch alone has been enough for some to justify the console’s $300 price tag.

Zelda aside, the differentiating feature of the Nintendo Switch is that its hardware can be configured into three distinct playing modes. In handheld mode, the Switch is essentially a small tablet with wireless controllers, called Joy-Con, attached to either side of a 6.2-inch LCD touchscreen. You can detach the Joy-Con and use the console’s integrated kickstand to prop up the display for single or multiplayer gaming in tabletop mode. I highly recommend the couch co-op puzzle game Snipperclips for this mode. At home, the Switch can be docked for big screen gameplay on your TV. In this mode, the Joy-Con can either be used separately or combined using a more traditional gaming controller grip that is included with the system.

The modularity needed for the Switch to support multiple hardware configurations reveals some of the weaker aspects of the system’s design. For example, some people have complained about scratching the console’s screen when placing it into the dock. Others argue that the kickstand required for tabletop mode feels flimsy and detaches with little force. Thankfully, it can also be snapped back into place just as easily. I find that the Joy-Con works better when attached to the console in handheld mode than when detached and used individually for multiplayer gaming, a use which exposes the slightly cramped and non-uniform button placement of the left and right controllers. 

With product development, your customers ultimately decide what is good enough.

Finally, the grip for combining the Joy-Con controllers into a single form is both uncomfortable and visually clunky. Nintendo offers a $70 accessory Pro Controller as a solution to this problem. Some have debated whether these design flaws are indeed a byproduct of designing for modularity or if Nintendo simply cut some corners to hit their cost target or launch deadline.

I’d like to give Nintendo the benefit of the doubt because elsewhere they have demonstrated great attention to detail when designing the Switch. For example, pressing and holding a button on the Pro Controller while in TV mode wakes up the Switch from its sleep mode via Bluetooth. The console then turns on your TV via its HDMI connection and automatically selects the correct input source. Anyone who has watched someone fumble with a TV remote to change inputs will understand how magical this feat is. Equally delightful, while switching to handheld mode, a satisfying click and on-screen visual feedback confirm that the Joy-Con have been properly attached to the console. And, although I’m unwilling to confirm this personally, Nintendo coated the Switch game cards with denatonium benzoate, a non-toxic bittering agent, to deter small children from ingesting them. These features showcase just how capable Nintendo is of thoughtful design.

It’s easy to imagine the internal debates that must have taken place inside Nintendo around how many kinks needed to be perfectly resolved before initial production of the Switch could begin. I’m reminded that sometimes perfection can be the enemy of good. With product development, your customers ultimately decide what is good enough.

In this case, the criticism of the Switch doesn’t seem to be hurting Nintendo whose initial sales for the console have been record-breaking. In fact, as The Wall Street Journal recently reported, Nintendo is doubling their 2017 Switch production plans to meet consumer demand. The hybrid nature of its hardware and the exclusive game titles differentiate the Switch enough from other video game consoles for people to line up and buy it, warts and all.