Monday, September 26, 2011

Thoughts On The iPhone 5

I always loved the look of the iPhone 4. When I was toying around with cell phone design, I always felt that a rejiggering of the external antenna could provide both superior reception and a chance at looking positively incredible. I'm sure a lot of you remember the old days of external antennae, back in the late 90's and early 2000's. It was just this big tumor on the top of the phone. Attractive, no. Useful, hell yes.

Unlike today, when after the iPhone 4 came out and there was endless discussion of "death grips," back then, there was no death grip. You could positively molest your cell phone and never suffer a drop in reception. Because you had a giant, honking antenna sticking out above your hand. As far as overall reception goes, I don't think that current designs have ever achieved the reception that cell phones had back then. For better or worse, though, the internal design became the standard within a few years.

When working with my designs, I was never able to, based on the information that I had, design an external antenna that both looked good and functioned. I eventually dropped the whole endeavor out of frustration, since I just knew that there was extra reception there to be had, but everything I did looked hideous. So as you can imagine, I nearly shit myself when I saw the iPhone 4. I was sure that Apple had figured it out. Obviously, as we now know, they hadn't. The iPhone 4 had a convenient little spot on the antenna that, if you touched it with so much as your pinky tip, the reception would go dead.

While I have always felt that design for design's sake is hollow, I'm frequently won over by a pretty face. Nokia jabbed at Apple, saying that reception is always goal #1, with the look coming in only after reception targets had been met. I don't think that Nokia is bullshitting there. The best reception that I've ever had has always been on Nokia phones (with the worst reception always on Sony Ericsson). And truly, when one does put design before function, as they did with the iPhone 4, you frequently end up with incredibly unattractive solutions that negate the design, like the iPhone "bumper" case.

Still, the iPhone 4 is my favorite iPhone. I love the design. Love, love, love it. This is of course funny since I would never in a million years actually own an Apple product. But that's unimportant! What's important is that the iPhone is fucking pretty. Moreover, the design oozes tactile satisfaction. As Steve Jobs has said, he wants Apple products to be "magical," and by that he means that he wants Apple products to elicit interaction. Good design makes people desire contact with the product. And while the iPhone 4 may not be a terribly good phone, as an object that I would like to simply sit there and stroke, it's an honest-to-God masterpiece.

So it is that I hope that they are keeping the same design for the iPhone 5, but I suspect that they are not. Apple's big annual products seem to have a lead time from earliest functioning prototypes to final design of around two years. That means that the iPhone 5 already had functioning test phones when they were gearing up to launch the iPhone 4. At that time, they had yet to experience the strongly negative public reaction to the iPhone reception problem, and the iPhone 4 is, as I said, fucking pretty, so the design was in all likelihood the same.

Now, we have the iPhone 5 being the first iPhone not released in the summer. Some people attributed the delay to the Japanese Earthquake, but I find that highly doubtful. Most of Apple's products are manufactured in China and Taiwan, with parts primarily manufactured there and in Korea. I suspect that the delay was to fast-track a new design, which still required well over a year from the point of decision, probably some time in July or August of 2010, to the new release date sometime in October 2011. This is obviously a guess, but I feel decently confident in it.

Again, I hope that they keep the design, since It's just so beautiful, but from a functional standpoint, they should probably change it. And lord knows, Apple has skilled designers working there, so any redesign is likely to look just as good.

UPDATE:

Well, my prediction was wrong, but my hope was right. Maybe they found a way to fix the antenna issue without sacrificing the gorgeous design. Because, man, it's a pretty phone.

UPDATE 2: It's confirmed. No more death grip. Although, there really was never any problem with a "death grip." The problem was with a "death touch," where even the smallest contact of the pinky finger on a particular antenna point would kill reception.

iPhone 4S Test Notes: No More Death Grip (Via Gizmodo)

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Good Design Is Not Hard

My first real post to this is going to discuss why good design isn't hard. Design endeavors go awry when those involved think that they know what people "want." This is why major corporations almost never manage good design, because the suits & ties that run them think that they know what people want. It's not that they think that they are artists or designers, although this is frequently a comorbid issue. When an executive thinks that he knows, all other considerations are thrown out the window.

Perhaps the greatest example of this is Dell vs. Apple. I'm sure Michael Dell wishes that this quote would just die, but in 1997, he said that if he was in control of Apple, he would liquidate the company. Today, Dell is possibly the least alluring name in the world of computers, while Apple is the most valuable company in the world.

The idiot suit & tie is an unfortunate side effect of a successful company. When times are good, there is little pressure to force out stupidity, and the true depths of their stupidity are only realized when the market dynamic has shifted, which is frequently enough to kill a company.

Apple is a startling example of what good design can do. And what they've done was not hard. I think the reason for Apple's rise was that Jobs came back humble. He was kicked out in the 1980's for being an arrogant prick, but returned after realizing that while an overarching philosophy could be directed by him, relying on the input of others was critical for ensuring the final product really kicked ass. He made no assumptions about his knowledge.

Good design is something that can be learned online. Spend a year reading design magazines and websites, construct an overarching philosophy that you want to follow, practice, and realize that the goal of design is the give the customer something that they want. There are lots of philosophies that can be followed, and as such providing "tips" on good design is pointless. It's like business books that purport to provide you with the skills and knowledge to succeed in business, and all they actually do is list a bunch of a success stories and say "do this."

My philosophy is one of quantifiable minimalism. Design attempts to achieve a goal, this goal can be measured quantifiably, and the goal should be met with as few elements as possible. What I mean by quantifiable is that when designing a thing you intend a person to use it. It can be anything. For example, a digital camera. Produce two versions of the camera and then give them out to test subjects and track the number of photos taken. The goal of a camera is to take photos and whichever design is used to take the most photos is the best design.

Focus groups are useless, but measurements of actual usage are not. Designing a button? Which design causes people to press it most often? Designing a window? Which design gets opened the most often? Anything with which a customer interacts can have that interaction measured. And any design which increases user interaction is the best design.

You'll notice an interesting advantage to this perspective, as a design, you don't even need to know why your design is good! Apple's design is great because it draws people to it. It makes people want to interact with it. Something about Apple design increases interaction because of ease, aesthetic, and its ineffable draw. It's the reason why Steve Jobs is so fond of describing experiences as magical. They are magical because people want to have those experiences over and over again. Why is this? How is this? You don't even need the answers. You can fake it! Just so long as the designs draw people in and encourage interaction.

Somehow, this concept is hard to get. Apple is one of the few companies out there that "gets it." Look at the competitors in the cell phone market. Look at RIM, Nokia, Samsung, LG, and HTC. It took them forever to stop designing total crap. Look at how many years it took competitors to stop designing beige boxes after Apple introduced the iMac. They did this because the executives, explicitly sometimes, believed that they knew what people wanted. And one would think, that eventually, someday, the executives would learn enough from the past to stop repeating it. That day has not yet come.