4 Ways Tech Companies Screw Up Gadget Design

How does Apple do it? Every time there's a new iPhone, iPad or Mac, it seems like the only company that does gadget design right. That's an exaggeration, but it's undeniable that no other company has defined "tech sexy" the way Apple has. We asked a pair of design experts why everyone else seems to blow it.

Gadi Amit is the principal of NewDealDesign, which designed Palm's Zire handheld and the FitBit fitness tracker, as well as devices for Dell and NetGear. Kim Mingo is an independent interaction designer who has worked for AT&T, Motorola, and Sony. Here's their explanation of how bad gadget design happens:


1. Companies confuse design with "style"

The former head designer for Nokia was oh-so-proud of his ridiculously blinged-out handsets for Vertu, despite their stale candybar form factor. Dell's recent line of status-symbol smartphones touts a "curved glass" surface without making any case as to why a user would want such a thing. And Boxee's bizarrely asymmetrical set-top box makes you wonder if their designers ever had human users in mind at all.

"Good design solves problems — it's not just empty fashion," says Mingo. "If I try to put myself in the [Boxee] designers' shoes, maybe they weren't aiming for function at all, but rather trying to create some kind of tech-art sculptural object, like a vase. But if you think to yourself, 'I've never seen anything like that before,' there might be a good reason for that."

In other words, design isn't like barbecue sauce — it's not something you splatter on top of stale leftovers to spice them up. Form should "ever follow function," and Amit chalks up Apple's shift toward using materials like aluminum and glass as a classic example. "Yes, they look beautiful and distinctive, but it was a real choice on their part to make their products more durable — a metal unibody laptop has more rigidity, and the parts can be machined with better precision," he says. "Now of course the rest of the industry is doing the same thing, but perhaps not for the same reasons."


2. The people at the top don't make design a priority

Everyone knows that at least half the reason why Apple has a stellar design reputation is because Steve Jobs is personally obsessed with it and always has been. But Jobs didn't invent beautiful tech: there once was a time when Sony enjoyed the same design-innovator status that Apple does now. Sony was one of the first tech brands to appoint a full-time in-house design chief (in 1954!), and Mingo recalls that teams working at the once-legendary Sony Design Centre "had direct access to the president of the company." (Sadly, things have changed.)

The point is that good design doesn't just happen. "Passion really is key, as cliched as that sounds," says Amit. When a company refuses (either by choice or sheer indifference) to allocate significant resources to the design process — or buries it under several blubber-thick layers of bureaucratic remove — mediocrity is inevitable. Amit singles out TV makers as lacking in vision: "Besides a few notables like Sony and Samsung, it's quite amazing how little novelty we see in the design of our primary home-entertainment platform," he says.

Contrast that with perennial design innovator Nintendo, whose products could easily fall into the "black plastic box" trap. The company's chief designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, has the CEO's ear, and has had it for a long time. Result? "Every five years or so, they come out with an amazingly innovative product," Amit says. "They don't miss."


3. They let too many cooks in the kitchen

Making a killer product like the Flip camera is easier when the specs are simple and the manufacturer can control the design process from beginning to end. It's much harder with smartphones, which are inevitably the product of compromises between handset makers and telecom providers. "The irony is that they both want exactly the same thing," says Mingo. "They want the customer to think of a Samsung or a Motorola or a Verizon phone the same way they do with McDonalds: I know exactly what features I'm getting, I know exactly how to use it, and I'm loyal to the brand. But making that happen for two or more brands in one product at the same time is extremely difficult."

Case in point: remember the techno-abortion that was the Motorola ROKR, the "world's first iTunes-enabled mobile phone"? Not quite Moto, definitely not Apple, all junk. "Mobile companies will literally turn key aspects of the UI or the product design into contract negotiating points," Mingo says, and outside of the iPhone, that's still pretty much how things go. (Samsung's Behold II is a particularly ghastly example, although this problem has been around since the cellphone stone age.) "They're trying to protect their brand interests from each other," she says, "rather than thinking about the end user and letting designers create an integrated experience." Result: meh phones and annoyed customers.


4. They bungle the presentation

Besides the products, what's the difference between Best Buy and an Apple Store? One is an undifferentiated maze of stickered plastic slabs/bricks/blobs, and the other is an open-air museum filled with techno-objets d'art. Good design doesn't end with the product itself, says Amit, who claims that a good portion of any design innovator's advantage comes from laser-precise marketing and appealing physical presentation. "If you peel off the hideous Intel stickers and take away the cardboard price tags and horrible store lighting, many of these devices are really stunning in their own right," he asserts. "But retailers and chip makers all have their own deals in place for marketing and display, and a company like HP just has to put up with them, which really degrades the overall design experience."

If your first physical or marketing experience with a gadget isn't positive, you are being "taught" to have lower expectations for that device, says Mingo. A slew of pretty metal-and-glass tablets that look just like the iPad are emerging, but only one of them will give you that "iPad experience," from the first time you see it in an ad, to the way it looks in a store, to the way the box feels as you open it up. All of that "training" contributes to your opinion of the device itself.

Contrast that with any other tablet — the JooJoo, the Android-equipped WePad or Notion Ink/Pixel Qi's Adam — has anyone considering buying an iPad even heard of these devices? "Unless they really design their message to let users know what to expect that's different, experience-wise, a well-designed device won't be enough," Mingo says.

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