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The designer's eye: Nintendo Labo

By Olivier Patry, August 1st, 2018

Coming soon to store shelves, Nintendo Labo is a toy-making and play platform that’s designed to expand the Nintendo Switch experience, and at the same time teach kids and grownups some basic principles of engineering, physics, and programming. Nintendo invites us to take cardboard cut-out sheets, rubber bands, and strings, make a variety of toys to play with, and discover new ways to interact with the Nintendo Switch console and its virtual worlds. Which explains the signature: Make, Play, Discover.

As industrial design professionals, we’ve found ourselves fascinated with this new world from the Nintendo brand universe. So for our current Designer’s Eye section, we’ve asked Olivier Patry, Design Manager Lead UX at ALTO, to share his analysis of a complete sequence of interactions with the product, from opening the box to a full play session.

We also invite you to access and read Olivier’s previous notes on his experience with Nintendo Switch.


PACKAGING

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The playful, colourful graphic identity on the package faithfully reflects the Nintendo brand image. It’s eye-catching, sparks user interest, and suggests oodles of possible toys to play with. The black-and-white Nintendo Labo logo is neat and direct, while its hard-edge typography suggests the pop-out pieces and a DIY connotation easily associated with the brand.

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It also invites comparison with the simple, straightforward Nintendo brand logos of the 1990s, and their first game controller, the NES, which displayed similar lines.

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When you open the box, the contents are neatly laid out and arranged with care. The DIY aspect is immediately felt, and enhances the feeling that we’re in for a hands-on experience. We also appreciate the eco-responsible aspect of the materials, though the cardboard cut-out sheets could have been optimized to generate less waste.

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A package resembling a toolbox, perhaps with its own handle, would have added a final touch to the overall look, though the design is very successful nonetheless.

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PHYSICAL DESIGN

In the box are pre-cut cardboard sheets, various other materials, and the gaming software, all neatly and attractively arranged. The cardboard sheets have separate colour codes for each of the items that can be made, and letter codes to help users navigate the materials more easily during assembly. The print on the cardboard is clean and precise. The graphic design is modern and consistent with the product as a whole.

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For our presentation here, out of five toy projects that can be made from the dozens of pieces at our disposal, we chose the experience of making and playing with the fishing rod.

The hashmarked areas indicating waste cardboard are easy to see, but the smaller coloured pieces integrated into other, larger coloured pieces are hardly noticeable. In general, it’s quite difficult to fold the cardboard pieces efficiently, especially their longer lengths. Care and attention are needed, and this may be difficult for young children.

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Overall, we found the different ways cardboard and its properties were made use of extremely clever. Adding resistance to movement, contributing feedback to forward movement using a "click" or simply exploiting cardboard’s natural springiness when folded – this is the real engineering behind the Nintendo Labo.

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DIGITAL GRAPHIC DESIGN

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With its assembly instructions shown on the console, Nintendo has struck an ideal balance between entertainment and efficiency. It’s a fun experience the moment you begin to watch. Bright, colourful backgrounds and rounded boldface lettering create a cheerful atmosphere. High contrasts and a clear information hierarchy make it easy to navigate the interface intuitively.


DIGITAL INTERACTIVE DESIGN

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The visual indicators for handling the pieces and their step-by-step assembly stand out very clearly. The most important areas flash in red, and this raises the viewer’s attention to the level needed for the task. More complex manipulations are accompanied by validation points to prevent errors in assembly. If you make a mistake, or aren’t sure, simply touch the big "Back" or "Forward" arrows to review
the steps.

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The "rotate" option lets you view your toy’s assembly in 3D from different points of view. This helps you understand a new piece and its shape when it first appears on screen. On the other hand, it’s unfortunate that there’s no scale reference as this makes fitting the right parts together more complicated.

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Nintendo seems aware that assembly is relatively time-consuming and finds a way to encourage and indicate your progress with friendly messages that appear while making the toy. The interface provides a visual cue on your progress through the steps. It’s too bad this visual is static. It would have been more enjoyable to see it change at each stage. Taking a break is also suggested at regular intervals. This is a great way to prevent boredom or frustration, and we also appreciate the designers’ awareness of the time being spent on a screen, especially for young children.


DIGITAL SOUND DESIGN

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Right from the start, and throughout these instructions, we hear the characteristic NINTENDO audio DNA. Its iconic sound effects and Mario Bros musical figures create instant childhood recall. These sound cues are edited to run throughout the video, support the steps during assembly, and keep things going moothly. The music’s intensity varies with the level of progress. Users can almost feel their current steps coming to an end. We also appreciate that Nintendo has taken the time and effort to provide a translation in Quebec French, with words like atome, bantam, midget and other references to our culture.


PLAY EXPERIENCE

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Once we’ve finished making the fishing rod, we can finally begin to play with our creation. The integration of the physical object with the digital interface is very convincing and the first minutes of play are quite nice.

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Interaction between the toy and the Nintendo Switch console is made possible by gyroscopes integrated in the Joy-Con controllers inserted into the fishing rod. The reel handle on the left-hand side lets you feel its rotation and the handle on the right captures its movement in space.

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To simulate the line’s reeling-out motion, the string is wrapped inside the rod and behind the console. The rubber bands added around the mechanism behind the console let you feel a simulated tension when the line is pulled up. This ingenious approach allows believable feedback from the rod, reel, and line.

Unfortunately when it comes to the actual fishing game software, the interactions are too few, and we quickly got tired of them. The play experience is not as well developed as the editing experience. We expected a lot more.


SO, WHAT'S THE OVERALL VERDICT?

Major impact again, the Nintendo way! Once more, the brand proves its ingenuity and innovative power. Once more, Nintendo is a major pioneer, redefining the gaming experience by being the first to convert digital interaction into physical interaction as far as possible. The use of the different properties of cardboard, rubber bands, strings, and sensors present in the controllers is simply amazing. The sheer fun of making the toy and the quality of the physical product’s design sometimes eclipse the actual intended play experience. Another minor downside was the amount of waste cardboard left after completing the assembly – almost as much as was used for the parts. For a toy projecting strong eco-responsible values, wouldn’t it have been possible to optimize the die cutting and printing? We believe it should have been.

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All in all, NINTENDO LABO succeeds remarkably in delivering a highly intuitive play experience with real educational value that parents and children alike will enjoy. Combining toys, DIY activities, and video games makes us feel that Nintendo still hopes for digital media to evolve in a very healthy way.

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