Microsoft broke its own rules to reinvent the cardboard box

The Xbox Adaptive Controller is one of the most forward-thinking Microsoft products in years. It required a complete revamp of the company's design philosophy.

Mark Serrels Editorial Director
Mark Serrels is an award-winning Senior Editorial Director focused on all things culture. He covers TV, movies, anime, video games and whatever weird things are happening on the internet. He especially likes to write about the hardships of being a parent in the age of memes, Minecraft and Fortnite. Definitely don't follow him on Twitter.
Mark Serrels
4 min read
Microsoft's Xbox Adaptive Controller sits in the cardboard box used for shipping.

Behold the Xbox Adaptive Controller, and the cardboard box it comes in.


Kevin Marshall has been making boxes for 26 years.

He's made boxes for Procter & Gamble. He's made boxes for Estée Lauder. And, of course, he's made boxes for Microsoft , the company he now works for as a creative director of design.

That's a lot of boxes. That's 26 years of boxes.

A lot of thinking about boxes, learning about boxes, talking about boxes, poring over the finest details of boxes. After all that time, you might assume Marshall is the expert, and he is.

But he still had something to learn -- or, more specifically, a group of people still had something to teach Marshall -- about boxes.

Watch this: Unboxing the box that broke Microsoft's rules

Nothing about us, without us


Kevin Marshall, the Design Director working on packaging for the Xbox Adaptive Controller.


I'm chatting with Marshall and Mark Weiser. Marshall's job is to take products created by Microsoft and design the best possible packaging for them. It's a process that incorporates brand vision, design development and the stewardship of large teams.

Weiser is part of Marshall's team. Weiser is an industrial designer. For the last year, Marshall and Weiser were part of the team responsible for creating the packaging for Microsoft's upcoming Xbox Adaptive Controller.

It was a challenging, eye-opening experience.

"It was a paradigm shift," Marshall admits. "It flew in the face of what I anticipated."

The Adaptive Controller. It's a compelling call to arms for the games industry. Essentially a controller designed to help gamers with limited mobility play video games , the Adaptive Controller is an endlessly malleable piece of kit that caters to players with an incredibly broad spectrum of limited mobilities. Every gamer has their own challenges when it comes to gaming. The challenge with the Adaptive Controller: cater to as many gamers as possible and do so in tandem with the people who needed it most.
"Nothing about us, without us" was the tagline, Weiser said.

The Xbox Adaptive Controller is an incredibly useful, worthwhile idea, but useless if the target market is unable to get it out of the box.


Mark Weiser made dozens of box prototypes for the Xbox Adaptive Controller.


That was the challenge that Marshall and Weiser were presented with, and it required a complete rethink of Microsoft's packing philosophy.
Step one: loops. A lot of loops.
"One of the insights that was eye-opening was that a lot of these gamers with limited mobility might not have grasping dexterity," says Marshall.

Think about the way you might traditionally open a box: you grab, you pinch, you grasp. Often there's a certain amount of resistance, particularly with premium packaging. Loops enable gamers with limited mobility to insert an arm or a foot to gain the leverage required to open specific parts of the box.

Step 2: more steps. That went against everything Marshall had learned in his 26 years of creating packaging for luxury products.

"One of the steps we learned along the way: more simple steps were preferred compared to fewer complicated steps," Marshall explains.

"When designing a more accessible package the number of steps were less of a concern. It was more important the steps themselves were simple."

Watch this: Microsoft's Xbox Adaptive Controller unboxed

A first step

The Adaptive Controller box looks like a regular Microsoft product from the outside. This is deliberate. "We didn't want something that felt othered," Weiser says.

Weiser, an able-bodied man, opens the box. He does it step by step, using a series of simple loops designed by the packaging team. With a gentle tug, sections open in delicate ways. The dimensions of the box are such that, through every step of the process, the controller is at minimal risk for a high drop that might cause it damage.

The team went through dozens of prototypes to get to this point, relying on feedback from gamers with limited mobility. "It became incredibly deep in scope, there were versions upon versions we were testing," Weiser says.

"There was just a lot to learn."


In the end, he explains, the team came up with three final designs. The beta-testing team was unanimous: Everyone chose one package -- the box Weiser was unboxing at that moment, the box that will hit retail when the Xbox Adaptive Controller is released in September.
Weiser remembers two testers in particular.

"They didn't think they'd be able to open any of the boxes at all," Weiser says. "But both of them were able to go through the process of opening the box we ended up going with."
"That was humbling to see and really nice to see how excited they were about that."

Both Weiser and Marshall believe the Xbox Adaptive Controller's packaging is the beginning of a broader design philosophy that could be applied across Microsoft's entire product portfolio.

It's an interesting thought: Redesigning this particular box is useful and necessary, but what about the rest of Microsoft's products? Gamers with limited mobility will almost certainly be able to unpack the Xbox Adaptive Controller, but they might not be able to unbox the Xbox One itself. That's a bigger issue, and a more challenging journey.

But this is a pretty important first step. 

Inside Microsoft's lab with the Xbox Adaptive Controller

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