Top companies reveal to us the twisty path of smartphone design
Recently, there’s been a lot of talk on how companies approach the challenge of designing a new phone. Many rumors and speculations are circling the internet, which is why we decided to ask the manufacturers themselves about what goes on behind the scenes.
The development of a smartphone is a sensitive and understandably secretive process. It’s no surprise then that companies are hesitant to go into details about what’s going on in their design departments. Some straight up refused to answer in any way. Still, others were willing to share interesting insights about their approach. Let’s get right into it!
For some time, Google has been drawing attention with its smartphone designs. Last year, the release of the Pixel 3 was predated by numerous leaks and theories about alternative models being in the works. This year, with the Pixel 4, things were heading down the same path when Google decided to intervene and released a teaser for its upcoming device on Twitter. While that settled one dispute, it didn’t rule out the possibility that the company has competing design teams, as reported by Google “insiders”.
The prototypes that make it to the next phase receive a physical form. That can be through 3D printing or machining out of metal or other materials. No expenses are spared when it comes to fine-tuning the design as Google said it “... can easily make hundreds throughout the course of a program”. These discarded prototypes will make great memorabilia for tech enthusiasts but we doubt they ever leave the boundaries of the company’s R&D building.
But how does the team decide which one of these will become the next Pixel? We know for sure the notch on the Pixel 3 XL was function over form all the way, but does that mean the team prioritizes features over looks? Here’s what they had to say about it:
It’s not surprising to hear that the company that makes the software running on more than half of the world’s smartphones has the user experience as its main focus. Hopefully, though, the front of the Pixel 4 XL will be a bit easier on the eyes.
Samsung was rather sparse on the information it was willing to give us. Although our questions weren’t poking too deep, as the leading smartphone manufacturer, Samsung does have the most to lose, so it’s understandable that it wouldn’t want to share any details. It had a few words to say about design, however:
Looking at recent Samsung smartphones, we can agree that their design has been on point recently and the efforts put into color choices and finishes are definitely noticeable.
... multiple teams working together to conceptualize and finalize the design of a product – including those from research centers around the world to design, product planning, R&D and marketing.”
Preliminary designs are then shown to selected employees for feedback on design and user experience. That feedback is then used to further polish the visuals or the software of the smartphone.
While Samsung didn’t talk about later stages of product development, we know that devices with the final design are also distributed to employees for further testing. That’s often how some of the more intriguing leaks usually happen, as we saw earlier this year when a Galaxy S10+ was spotted in the wild a month before the official release.
Unlike Samsung, LG had some pretty interesting insights to share with us. When it comes to the practice of employing multiple design teams, LG responded that it has had more than one team working on different versions of the same phone in the past, but it’s not a practice the company is often employing due to strict security rules surrounding the development of a new phone. Of course, the design team is still working closely with other departments such as engineering, to make sure their proposals are feasible.
How many prototypes does a single team at LG prepare then? A lot!
Dozens of prototypes must mean that all kinds of designs are on the table when a new phone is developed. LG confirms that is indeed the case:
When the time comes for the final decision, LG focuses not only on how the phone will feel to use but also how it will be accepted by those surrounding the user. The company wants to make phones that put their clients in a good light even if they’ve gone for a budget device.
The ideas that don’t get the green light don’t end up in the dumpster either. LG is keeping all the valuable results from the research phase for potential use on another project:
Overall, we’re not surprised by what LG is doing behind the scenes because a lot of it is reflected on the phones it releases as well. We’ve seen the company experiment with all sorts of designs and features, the latest one being the “Air Gesture” motion controls on the LG G8. We wish LG would spend more time developing the ideas it has rather than jumping from one to another year to year, but maybe it’s just looking for the right one to do so.
Over the last few years, Huawei propelled itself to the number 2 spot of largest smartphone manufacturers and a big reason for that are the huge improvements in smartphone design and build quality the company made over that period. The brand's current style is a result of international efforts. Huawei has "... global design teams in several locations including Paris, London, Seoul and Tokyo", and that's on top of another four design studios the company has in China. The different teams are not only collaborating, but competing as well, and unlike Google, Huawei is not shy to talk about it:
As you can imagine, with so many design teams the number of prototypes must be really high as well, and it is: "...anything between 20 to 50 at the very least, but in some cases, it could be a lot more."
To keep the competition between the teams fair, Huawei puts no restrictions on what designs each of them can explore. Notches, motorized cameras and everything else is on the table for each creative group, as long as its within the predetermined guidelines for the specific model.
When it comes to deciding which design makes it to the production line, Huawei has "...very strict design evaluation processes". The first round is, of course, within the design team itself, but then it goes further up the chain of command all the way to the CEO for final approval. The decision is made with different important groups in mind: "...from top management and product line to marketing, and even customers, too." So, don't think that the CEO is just choosing the phone he likes best.
Once the process is completed and the teams are ready to move onto the next one, Huawei's philosophy is to start from scratch for every phone and build upon new ideas.
Honor phones are often treated like rebranded Huawei devices, but the company is a separate entity and has its own teams and ways of doing things. That also means a unique approach to the design process:
To add some extra flair to its smartphones, Honor is also working alongside fashion experts from Milan and Paris that help the company capture current trends in lifestyle and create a product that will be in touch with the core audience of the brand: young people.
This combination of designers, technical and fashion experts creates at least 3-4 prototypes for each model. The prototypes then go through at least three rounds of optimization and perfecting of the design until the company’s standards are met.
At each step “...a dedicated panel of professional judges evaluates the smartphone design from different aspects. The design process is strict and sometimes takes months to come up with a final solution. In order to keep up with the industry’s fast-moving pace, Honor constantly organizes design experts and managers to review and vote on the smartphone designs at key points.”
But what exactly is Honor trying to achieve with its design?
As you can see, there are many more ingredients that go into a smartphone’s design besides the obvious ones: display size, body thickness, buttons position. Companies work hard to make their products stand out, a challenging task in today’s environment where even small manufacturers release premium devices at competitive prices. Each wrong decision can be costly when there’s so little separating your product from that of another company.
Next time you grab your phone (if you aren’t holding it right now), spare a thought about all the work that went into your device and tip your hat to the people that made it happen.