Sometimes focus groups can be harsh and that was exactly the case when Nintendo Labo was first introduced to kids. They had difficulty putting the pieces together correctly and that led the developers to go back to the drawing board to tweak the shapes and revamp the instructions. Mr. Sakaguchi of Nintendo was so upset after the first showing that he went back to his hotel room to cry a little:
Nintendo Labo is immediately different from other games because it starts with the customer building something, and it’s also clear that the product is only possible with the Nintendo Switch, but how did you go about turning this idea into a product? What sort of difficulties did you face along the way?
Mr. Sakaguchi: Honestly, at first, I thought it was going to be really easy.
Mr. Sakaguchi: I figured that building and repairing these things would be flexible and easy because we were dealing with engineered cardboard sheets. But once we decided that we wanted to design the Toy-Con creations so that you wouldn’t need any scissors or glue to assemble them, the project suddenly became very difficult.
You mean that you don’t need anything aside from what’s in the kits to build them?
Mr. Sakaguchi: That’s right. We thought it would be disappointing if you bought a product and then realized you didn’t have everything you needed to complete it. I mean, of course that would be disappointing. We decided we couldn’t let that happen.
Mr. Ogasawara: We decided on this very early in the process, because if tools were necessary we’d have to include them in the kits—but the more we thought about it the more we realized that we wanted to design the product so that you wouldn’t need any tools at all.
Mr. Sakaguchi: The idea that tools shouldn’t be necessary is what caused the design to take shape. Once we had preliminary designs to work with we did some consumer testing in the U.S. and in Tokyo. The tests didn’t go over very well, though. It was…it was rough.
I was so upset I went back to the hotel room and cried a little.
I’m serious! I was so sad! (Laughs.)
(Laughs.) You thought you’d made something anyone could build, but it turned out they couldn’t?
Mr. Sakaguchi: That’s pretty much what happened. Going into it, I thought that people might have trouble getting it exactly right, but as it turned out people had a lot of trouble with the making part.
I was mostly worried that people might think they’d built it correctly, even though it was all wrong.
They would think it was correct because they put it together themselves?
Mr. Sakaguchi: I have a distinct memory from this test session, where a child was saying “I had no trouble making it, but younger kids might.” That’s a nice sentiment, but truthfully the Toy-Con House he made was a mess.
I knew then that this could be a problem. If people were messing up but not realizing it, then they’d misunderstand the product, which is definitely a situation I wanted to avoid.
I assume you ran these prototype tests quite a few times, but what state of development was the product in at this point?
Mr. Kawamoto: At the time, we thought it was essentially a final version.
Is that so? Ogasawara-san, you were tasked with the design of the cardboard sheets at the time, weren’t you? What did you make of this feedback? I’m assuming you had never worked on cardboard design projects like this before.
Mr. Ogasawara: Well, we had experience designing product packaging using cardboard, but this was the first time I’d ever tried to make a cardboard design that was easy to assemble for the consumer. Despite this, I continued working on the designs and—well, the consumer test was a real shock! (Laughs.)
Sakaguchi-san said it made him cry, but to tell you the truth things were rough over in hardware development too.
It was surprising because it wasn’t like we hadn’t put a lot of thought into the design at that point. We were always calling over co-workers unfamiliar with the project and seeing how well they could make the Toy-Con projects we designed, and those experiments had always gone well. So basically, consumer tests on adults had all been good up until that point. Going into the test I’d been thinking that 70% or 80% of the kids would do well. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. It was a real disaster.
Mr. Sakaguchi: At first the concept was built completely around the message, which was that these are toys made of cardboard. So the original designs looked less like the objects they were modeled after, and looked more like, well, cardboard. I remember talking about the piano once, and we considered making the lid portion look more like the curves of a grand piano. At the time, we thought that customers could make the toys look like whatever they wanted, so we’d leave as many design elements up to them as possible.
For the same reason, we didn’t originally print anything on the surface of the cardboard. It soon became clear that without printing people got the front and back of the parts confused, and the build process started to fall apart. Through our consumer testing we realized that if the Toy-Con creations didn’t have a clearly-defined design, then it was hard for the customer to picture how they were supposed to look when completed.
We now have a rule that at least 50% of the surface of the specially-crafted cardboard sheets must be printed.
Did you also change the instructions or the build process?
Mr. Kawamoto: Yes, and dramatically. We simplified the steps and reconsidered the difficult sections. We also had to find ways to increase the durability. We decided to prioritize simplicity over the cool-factor of the designs.
Mr. Sakaguchi: We did things like taking octagonal parts and changing them to hexagons. The insertion tabs went through more than ten redesigns, focusing on making them easy to insert.
Mr. Ogasawara: So we worked on the tab designs, on making the printing clear, and on simplification. The most basic aspects of the process were making the front/back clear and the tabs. Once we had those designs worked out, we tried to simplify everything by reducing parts and so on.
Mr. Kawamoto: There were also places that almost required three hands to pull off, so we simplified these steps. There were times where it was difficult to proceed without someone stepping in and holding a part in place for you, and those parts would be difficult for small children.
So you reworked the designs to make them simpler and easier to understand?
Mr. Ogasawara: We decided to bring in children from elementary schools and run these child-focused consumer tests to refocus the design process. We had more than 100 children participating in these.
The development team performed these tests?
Mr. Ogasawara: Right, we figured we’d get ourselves in real trouble if we didn’t!
Plus, we could revise our designs after one test and then see the reaction at the following test to judge how effective the redesign had been. At the time we knew we wanted to make an interactive instruction manual that incorporated video content, but we didn’t have final designs of the cardboard sheets to work from. So we took photographs and slides and made little flipbooks that showed the instructions, then used these during the tests to see what parts needed improvement.
Simpler flipbooks were around 1,000 pages, while complex ones were 3,000. Whenever we redesigned it we had to take all new photographs, too.
That sounds really daunting!
Mr. Ogasawara: None of us had ever tried to make cardboard designs before, let alone projects that were easy to assemble, so it was an iterative process of figuring things out as we went. Still, the ease of assembly was absolutely essential to get right here, so we wanted to make all the improvements we possibly could.
Mr. Sakaguchi: People from both hardware and software development participated in these tests. The feedback we received from these tests directly led to the creation of our interactive instruction manual.
Mr. Kawamoto: We put a lot of effort into getting it right. Many instructions can be hard to follow. But the Nintendo Labo “Make” instructions are done in an interactive video format, so the user can zoom in and rotate objects to get a clear idea of what needs to be done. Plus, the instructions themselves were written by the same writers that work on our games, so they are a lot of fun to read.
Mr. Sakaguchi and Mr. Ogasawara: We think it’s the best instruction manual in the world!
Read the full interview at the official Nintendo Labo website! The game launches in just two weeks: April 20.