Author Archives: Randal Ellsworth

A Look Past the Surface Modularity of The Nintendo Switch

(Header Image: Nintendo)

“Nintendo Switch has inherited DNA from each of the many hardware systems Nintendo has released to Date”

– Shinya Takahashi

General Manager of the Entertainment Planning & Development Division at Nintendo 

All technology companies that build hardware rely on “re-implementable models of interconnected components and abstraction layers” (Irvine, n.d.). The Nintendo switch is an especially interesting case study in modular design because modularity is presented as its selling point! This is the case in both form and function. Designed as a recombination of existing technology, more specifically of Nintendo’s previous game consoles, it also markets itself as functionally modular for the consumer. But by looking past this surface level modularity there are a few design implications that should give any consumer pause before making a purchase decision. 

See Nintendo’s announcement video for the console below emphasizing its hybrid nature. Pay particular attention to their emphasis on the adaptability of it “switch”ing between different play experiences based purely on the versatility of the hardware’s subcomponents.

(Video: Nintendo)

As can be seen, Nintendo is essentially packaging a system of combinatorial components that afford a few differing experiences depending on their combination. Carry it around to play on the go, slide the controllers off for local multiplayer with your friend, and then plug it back into it’s docking station for the High-Definition Experience.

Additional components such as the touch screen on the tablet and the HD motion sensors in the side controllers leave the door open for other experiences such as mobile applications and/or Virtual Reality (VR). The company could also feasibly release new hardware to slide on to the tablet, future-proofing that combinatoriality just a little bit more.

This intentional modularity behind the design can set the agenda for experimentation and innovation as Nintendo attempts to compete with companies like Microsoft and Sony who have more conventional offerings and a much larger library of games. The competition builds their gaming hardware mixing and matching components into new iterations without drastically altering the conventional function of playing on the television. Because of this, they are able to offer more powerful hardware at a comparatively lower rate.

Management and Design theorists Carliss Y. Baldwin and Kim B. Clark note that “…modularity in design — an observable property of designs and design processes — dramatically alters the mechanisms by which designs can change” (Baldwin & Clark, 2000), and based on their messaging, Nintendo is banking on these mechanisms to close the gap between them and the competition.

(Icons: Nintendo)

But this surface-level abstraction belies a product that also closes itself off immensely – posing risks to the financial investment of the consumer. By assuming the mobile form-factor, the device also takes on some of the inherent risks and constraints of a mobile device. Nintendo has designed the system with “people’s interaction models in mind” (Lidwell, Holden, & Butler, 2010) and that design choice affords both mobile play AND extended play sessions with a device that can be vulnerable to physical damage in both settings.

Drop the device just right and it’s done for. Play for more than a few hours while it is docked (see center component in image below), it may overheat and warp into a funky  new shape. In each of these scenarios the complete purchase value is at risk. A tablet-based design for the base console constrains the consumer’s ability to replace individual components due to its compact complexity to manufacture. They are forced to either replace the device entirely or go without buying a new one. Additionally, the extra peripherals and games are useless without it. not to mention expensive on their own merits.

(Image: Nintendo)

The decision to purchase a Switch vs. some other gaming solution then, presents a choice of values when it comes to modular design: modularity in function for uniquely varied play experiences, or modularity in form for lesser financial risk and a more conventional experience.



Baldwin, C. Y., & Clark, K. B. (2000). Design Rules, Vol 1: The Power of Modularity. The MIT Press.
Irvine, M. (n.d.). Introducing Modular Design Principles. Retrieved from
Lidwell, W., Holden, K., & Butler, J. (2010). Universal Principles of Design. Rockport.

The Smartphone: Contrasting Outcomes for Learners and Consumers

For the individual seeking  passive entertainment, smartphones are gateways to a new world of content. The same applies to the learner engaging that content toward a specific learning goal. But whereas a simplified and “black-boxed” virtual environment enables the consumer, it may be a limiting factor for the learner.  

Noted design expert Donald Norman frames the relationship between user and devices such as smartphones as tools by labeling the latter as a “cognitive artifact”:

It is clear that we are entering a new era of technology, one dominated by access to computation, communication, and knowledge, access that moreover can be readily available, inexpensive, powerful and portable. Much of what will transpire can be called the development of cognitive artifacts, artificial devices that enhance human cognitive capabilities.

He goes on to describe how this augmentation in capability is more a reflection of how the task has changed in capacity, rather than the individual, but still leading to enhanced cognitive capabilities overall (“Norman-Cognitive-Artifacts.pdf,” n.d.). Potential engagement with ideas, media, and interaction increases by virtue of that shift. Ostensibly, this implies a positive relationship between user and goal attainment for both personas, however, when contrasted how might increased capacity for consuming content differ from learning from it? The discerning factor may be whether that smartphone limits metacognition and self-awareness within a “black-boxed” virtual learning environment.

Metacognition was first defined in 1976 as “thinking about your own thinking” (McGuire & McGuire, 2015), implying the capacity to self-direct one’s own learning process with attention to what they know, and what they don’t know. This brand of self-aware, contextual learning is what differentiates the learner from the consumer, and their approach to the content accessible through smartphones. A virtual learning environment that limits this awareness as a precondition to accessing deluges of content is nevertheless limiting the learning process by definition.

Economist and complexity theorist W. Brian Arthur coined the term “black-boxed technologies ” in his book, “The Nature of Technology” equating them to an attempt to understand evolved differences in animal species without being able to compare inside anatomies – they have no obvious relation. To truly understand the fundamental questions behind technology, it’s necessary to open them up, saying “If we want to know how [technologies] relate to each other, and how they originate and subsequently evolve, we need to open them up and look inside their anatomies.” (Arthur, n.d.).  

Apple’s ecosystem of smartphones exemplifies a “black-boxed” environment for both software and hardware. Utilization of apple-branded artifacts both enable the user with streamlined design; users flock to these products due to their simplicity and usability. But these benefits come while decreasing flexibility within and interoperability outside of the software and hardware ecosystem. It follows, then, that when diving into content with the intent to go beyond consuming with their smartphone and into wielding it as a learning implement – it’s necessary to reframe that learning tool as not existing within a vacuum. For the metacognitive learner, the choice to ignore awareness of the technology underlying their learning process is a choice to learn with limits.


Arthur, B. (n.d.). The Nature of Technology: What it is and How It Evolves. Free Press A Division of Simon & Schuster.

McGuire, S. Y., & McGuire, S. (2015). Metacognition: What it is and How it Helps Students. In Teaching Students How to Learn: Strategies You Can Incorporate Into Any Course To Improve Student Metacognition, Study Skills and Motivation. Stylus Publishing.

Norman-Cognitive-Artifacts.pdf. (n.d.). Retrieved September 13, 2017, from