Aesthetics in Consumer Electronics Industrial Design

Why?

Why do the design engineers of consumer electronics design a device the way they do? Why did HTC use metal in the design of the One? Why does Samsung engineer polycarbonate to look like hand stitched leather? Why dI’d Apple put a metal band around the iPhone 5 and why is it chamfered?

People expend a lot of time into making things look visually superior. There is something about attention to detail that says a lot about how people think. It also reveals just how much they respect the level of perception of others. Take, for example, ironing a shirt. Why do people iron their shirts? Why do they use starch? Some say it’s to get the wrinkles out. Others say it’s  to put the creases in. There are even a few who would say a shirt isn’t ironed until it has 7 creases in it. But what about the person who only irons the front of a shirt? Or the guy who irons a crease in the sleeve without first removing the last one…or two? They obviously cared enough to drag out the board and plug in the iron. What does a front-only ironed shirt mean? Do they think people aren’t  perceptive enough to notice?

Perhaps they just don’t care about what they think people don’t notice. You can draw your own conclusions. When I think about design in consumer electronics I can remember the first time I made a decision that took into account the aesthetic presentation as well as the features.  Some people make the decision solely on what it does. There is nothing wrong with that. Others decide on what it looks like. But what if you can get both?

PEbl

The Motorola Pebl was a nice looking device in its time despite being a clam. Clam shells aren’t a durable design for a cell phone. Cutting an electronic device in half and making the decision that it’s better to hinge the 2 pieces together to save horizontal length for vertical depth never made sense to me until the Pebl came to market.

Rounded body with a satin finish. It had a spring loaded hinge so the device could be opened with one hand by pulling down with the thumb. It had a quasi-functional display outside and a small but vibrant main screen. The ‘button’ interface was very unique. A metal plate designed with disconnected cuts so the keys could have visual and tactile discrimination.  EDGE connectivity with the ability to tether, and video capability. This device took the first video I ever posted on YouTube. A B52 flyover on hole #2 in Oklahoma City OK.

  

It was the first time I realized that aesthetics should play a part in the design decisions of consumer devices. It shouldn’t be the paramount reason, but it shouldn’t be neglected.

wpid-Photo-20140812141058.jpgA practical prototype of the i6 rear plate with what is surely one used for environmental testing has showed up on the web. From what we know based on all the other ‘leaks’, this one probably didn’t make the final cut because of the logo. I looks like someone decided to test this one with an ice pick to see what would happen if you stabbed an iPhone in the logo with something sharp. Perhaps that criteria was taken into account for the final design. We have seen other rear plate leaks that have the logo cut out to make space for an insert.

wpid-Photo-20140812141059.jpgThe leak shows the True-tone dual LED flash. The amount of protrusion from the camera lens cover looks to be on par with other leaks, and the antenna breaks are consistent. This leak came from Sonny Dickson, who has been accurate in the past. Because of his reliability, this leak has many puzzled about the visual presentation of the iPhone 6 casing. Thick lines for the antenna spacing are somewhat reminiscent of the iPhone 4. One would think Apple wouldn’t want to sour a device launch with such mixed feelings, considering the imbalance of scrunity that it receives over other competing OEMs.

One of the reasons Apple has been so successful in the iDevice line is due to why the aesthetics make it past final design review.  While the decisions are usually governed by practical engineering and performance reasons, some get implemented because of how the device is used. Most people would read that last sentence and think all OEMs do that. But do they? Most would consider the HID guidelines while the device is on.

But what about when it’s not?

Just because the device is off, that doesn’t mean people don’t interact with it. If you are a design engineer and aren’t concerned with this concept, I’m curious to know how you iron your shirt.

Scenario

Think about a tablet sitting in conference room that has all glass walls so the rest of the office can see inside. It sits alone on a table. The table is larger than most, it is round, and the tablet was pushed toward the center so the device owner would easily see it through the glass. The owner is returning and is late to their next meeting because of the oversight. The device owner walks in and is on a cellphone, informing the folks across town about the delay, sees the tablet and go to pick it up. Consider these designs:

The device design on the bottom has a flat edge metal band (possibly inspired from the iPhone design) that is trimmed from the center with 2 cuts at the top and bottom. This design obviously caters to the human attraction to symmetry. The device on the top has a swept edge so the bottom of the device has a footprint that is smaller than the top. Knowing that people generally find symmetry attractive, any OEM other than Apple would choose the bottom design at the final design review prior to production. How do I know this? Because thats exactly what they did.   Back to our scenario. The device owner reaches for the device. What happens in your mind? Were you imagining this scenario with you as the owner? If not, did you choose a man or a woman for the device owner? If it was a woman, what was she wearing? Was the owner in your scenario disabled? Why does any of that matter?

These are interesting questions to ponder. I often wonder what the difference in man hours spent at Apple design review on important issues like these  and the man hours spent at Samsung marketing trying to figure out where exactly ‘here’ is, and how do they get the next ‘big thing’ there.

If the owner were disabled and missing a hand or an arm, then even more needs to be considered. But the fact remains that only one design allows for an uncomplicated low stress way to retrieve the device with one hand. It also mitigates contact stress on the device itself and to the environment it lives in. Our analysis once again shows Apple maintains the philosophy of paramount user experience.

The user experience of simply picking up the device.

Summary

This is just one of many.  How often do you think of that? These are the reasons Apple designs from make it to the consumer. This is the ‘why?’ There are other devices on the market that are aesthetically pleasing. The ‘Dazzling White’ Samsung Galaxy Tab S that serves as the bottom of the 2 examples is one of them. But do you now see what is missing? The ‘why?’ Why did they design their device the way they did? Did the decision on the aesthetics get made based on fashion or function?

If I haven’t conveyed the importance of the ‘why?’ in a device design and you cannot answer my question, perhaps a little time with an engineer from Samsung or HTC will yield better results. You might find it difficult to get a Samsung or HTC engineer to answer that in public with the transparency that the question really deserves. They might simply tell you its the current engineering trend. You and I both know who sets those. Don’t forget to look at his shirt.

Jason@imthemobile.guru logo

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