Don’t Make Me Think, Xbox Edition

I’m a fan of obvious labels. If you’re naming a product, category, navigation link, or any other item that people will need to pick from among alternatives, obvious trumps clever all the time. Earlier this year, I wrote about how the new Harley Quinn superhero movie underperformed due (at least in part) to its obscure title. Now we have an example of a label that doesn’t fail because it’s obscure, but because it’s not differentiated enough.

Microsoft just released its latest generation of Xbox gaming consoles. This product line has a history of non-obvious names. While the first device was simply called “Xbox,” its followup was called Xbox 360. Confusingly, the third generation of the product was called Xbox One. There’s still a version of that third-gen device on the market called Xbox One X. The new version, generation 4, is called Xbox Series X.

According to an article on The Verge, sales of the Xbox One X have surged following the newer device’s release. The article speculates that this may be due to confusion about the product name:

Today, Microsoft launched pre-orders for its upcoming next generation console, the Xbox One X. Sorry, I meant the Xbox Series X. Can you blame me? There’s only one word of difference between the two names, and it’s the one in the middle. There are also three X’s.

It’s a common problem when naming the components of a product family: you want a word or two in the product name that identifies it as part of the family, but you can’t go overboard lest you make them hard to tell apart. This usually takes the nomenclature of [family name] + [identifier]. For example, Apple currently sells four iPhones: iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone SE, and iPhone XR. 11, 11 Pro, SE, and XR are marketing terms — they don’t have inherent meaning other than to differentiate the family’s products. It’s up to marketing to clarify the distinctions between products so people can make good decisions. (E.g., “The 11 is the one with nicer cameras” or “the SE is the cheapest and smallest.”)

The main problem with the Xbox Series X name is that it’s hard to scan. This is partly because its identifier (“Series X”) ends with the same letter as its predecessor, which is also the first letter of the family name. The result is a curious symmetry: the two Xbox generations start and end with “X.” There’s also no obvious relationship between the words “One” and “Series.” Even with the symmetry, it’d be much easier to tell these devices apart if they were called Xbox 3 X and Xbox 4 X.

This may not be a problem for gamers; I suspect those folks know the latest devices’ features and capabilities and names. But for mainstream customers, it can be unclear. I’m such a customer: my family may be getting a gaming console this year for Christmas. So, I’m paying more attention to this space than I usually do. I find Microsoft’s naming baffling. If I were to buy an Xbox, I’d have to double-check to make sure I’m getting the right device. That’s not what you want customers to do.

It looks like a bunch of soon-to-be-disappointed people accidentally bought Xbox One X’s today