Why do phone makers let these design mistakes happen?

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Why do phone makers let these design mistakes happen?
Recently, we talked about how companies approach the design of new smartphones. While there were some differences, it became obvious that countless hours are spent in perfecting the design of every smartphone that hits the market.

Why then, more often than not, when we get our hands on a phone, we’re quick to start pointing out things that we don’t like with it. Naturally, some of these are due to personal preferences that don’t align with that specific design. But other times, there are obvious flaws in the design that make us wonder how it even made it past multiple stages of approval and into production.

Trying to make a shoe that fits every foot


Let’s get this out of the way: designing a single handheld device that pleases everyone is impossible. Not only do we all have different hand sizes, but other factors influence how people feel about it as well: whether they use a case or not; if they primarily carry their phone in pockets, bags or purses; what the phone is mostly used for and so on.

Still, the display is the main element of every smartphone today and its size is what determines how the phone will look. Users want more real estate but as you stretch the diagonal of the screen, it quickly becomes too wide to comfortably hold. To counter that, companies started making phones taller, with displays having narrower aspect ratios, now reaching all the way to 21:9. But it doesn’t help that the thumb is the shortest finger, leaving much of the display out of reach when holding the phone normally.

Manufacturers decided to let people choose what they want to sacrifice: screen or comfort, and started releasing multiple versions of the same device to accommodate as many users as possible with two or three differently sized phones. And while that solves one of the issues, it’s not the one we’re here to talk about. There are a few key features on the body of the phone that largely determine how comfortable it will be to use in your day-to-day life. 

The smartphone ergonomics trifecta: volume, power, fingerprint


On most modern smartphones, there are usually three things you need to reach with your fingers, besides whatever is on your screen: the volume up/down and power buttons and the fingerprint reader. And while they may seem like a minor thing to worry about when you’re choosing your phone, after all, there are important parts like storage, display type and so on, you shouldn’t underestimate them. Because of their frequent use, if these elements aren’t conveniently placed, they will constantly irk you throughout the lifespan of the device, which can be years.
A good example of bad positioning is the power button on the Galaxy S10 and S10+. Compared to most other phones, it is placed too far up and you need to readjust your grip to reach it with your thumb, which increases the risk of dropping your phone. So while the overall design of the phones is close to perfect, unless you have giant hands or really long fingers, chances are the power button placement will cause you some annoyance. Sure, you can use “raise to wake” and “double tap to wake” to spare yourself some thumb reaching, but you still have to lock the phone by pressing the power button.
 

Another example of seemingly nonsensical design is Google’s decision to put the volume buttons under the power button on their Pixel phones. Sure, that makes volume adjustment easy, but in reality, it’s far more important to have the power button conveniently placed since it is the one you use most often.

And when it comes to fingerprint sensors, you can write a whole book about all the weird locations they can be found at. Plenty of manufacturers are guilty of placing it wrong on at least one model. A more notable example was Samsung’s decision to place the fingerprint sensor right next to the camera, causing people to inadvertently put their fingers on the camera lens all the time, smudging it in the process.

It’s safe to say that no company is releasing a phone knowing something about its design is wrong. After all, from designers to executives, the project has passed multiple evaluations and approvals, with each detail looked at under a magnifying glass. So, why do these “imperfections” still exist?

The limitations we cannot see 


Without a clear statement from the specific phone maker, it’s impossible to say what the exact reason for a certain design “flaw” was, and the chances of getting one are close to zero, so we’re left with our own theories. Luckily, we have a couple of them!

Theory 1: The jigsaw puzzle that is the inside of a phone leaves no other choice


Designers have to consider not only how a phone looks, but how it works as well. This means there are certain limitations to the flexibility they have when it comes to placing the various features around the body of the device. Components need to be connected internally to the main circuit board and that’s not always an easy task. While on the outside our phones are getting sleeker, with ports and buttons being removed and fingerprint sensors hiding under displays, the inside is as busy as ever.

Manufacturers are trying to satisfy the users’ need for longer battery life by cramming larger and larger batteries into their phones, but that significantly reduces the available real estate within the phone. This forces designers to sometimes compromise in order to fit everything within the tiny amount of space they have to work with. If that means moving the power button up an inch or placing the fingerprint scanner at a slightly suboptimal position, then that’s a compromise that has to be made.

With chips and other vital parts constantly shrinking in size, designers should get more freedom to create devices that are as comfortable to use as possible.

But there might be another reason we see buttons shifting positions from one model to another...

Theory 2: Durability concerns


You’re probably thinking: what does the power button have to do with durability? Well, not much as long as it stays in its place, but the hole it sits in has something to do with the phone’s rigidity. The metal frame of the phone is its skeleton and not only holds all the components in place but also makes sure your device doesn’t bend in your pocket.

Naturally, the holes drilled for the different controls and ports weaken the frame. This is especially true when there are holes on both sides of the devices and at the same height. This creates a horizontal line at which the phone is most vulnerable to bending. Of course, you’ve probably seen many phones that have buttons positioned like that. That’s because it makes the most sense ergonomically to have them in such a way. To counter the inherited structural weakness, manufacturers usually strengthen those areas internally, which of course takes up valuable space.

So while you might have the urge to rage against stupid design decisions and message companies on Twitter about how they should fix things, give it a second thought first. There are people that have spent literal months looking at the design and brainstormed a wide range of solutions for each and every detail you see and even more so for those you can’t see. And the final result is the way it is for a good reason that probably goes beyond our fleeing observations.

Does that mean we won’t deduct points for parts of the design we don’t like? Of course not. We’re evaluating the final product and if the design team was forced to compromise with something then that will be reflected in the phone’s overall score. After that, it’s up to the individual user to decide how much that will impact their experience.

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29 Comments

1. User123456789

Posts: 666; Member since: Feb 22, 2019

Biggest design mistakes ever : 1) screen hole 2) notch (all kinds) 3) cam bump more than 0,5mm (iphone's add near 2mm) 4) curved screen 5) horizontal triple cam layout 6) asymmetrical bezels 7) curved back ( like LG G3, Sony XZ2, zenfone 2) 8) front FPS that is not home button (Moto Z)

3. sgodsell

Posts: 7028; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

They make these so called mistakes, because it all comes down to money.

5. sgodsell

Posts: 7028; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

Some OEMs like Apple invested heavily into stupid technology like 3D touch, which left the customers playing the guessing game of find which app has added 3D touch support or not. I guess that is why that option is going the way of the dodo birds. Apple's FaceID using an IR camera, regular camera, and a IR dot projector was dumb. I guess that is why Apple is replacing it with a single Time of Flight camera instead. That will also make the notch much smaller, Apple's notch won the award for the biggest ugliest notch around.

9. iloveapps

Posts: 715; Member since: Mar 21, 2019

And you won the greatest apple troll. You forgot to mention how apple’s sales are declining.

14. sgodsell

Posts: 7028; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

Apple sales numbers are declining, sure. But not in profit, isn't that what all of you Apple guys like to talk about, profit right? Besides Apple can just easily remove something else and make its users pay for it. iPhone users today have to buy a quick charger and a audio dongle. Yet other OEMs give you that. You can't even plug in an iPhone to Apple's own MacBooks without buying a cable. I guess this is considered smart on Apple's part, especially when then make their customers bend over, and pay for every little detail. It's like Apples extortion insurance, sorry I get that confused with Apple Care. As if it cost $600 USD to fix the glass back of an iPhone XS. You can get a good dinner, a hooker, and a new smartphone thrown in for that price. But hey it's all about profit for Timmy and you iloveapps. Are you sure you are not a Ferengui (Star Trek)? "No Profit!, No Deal".

27. sissy246

Posts: 7035; Member since: Mar 04, 2015

WOW!! Pot calling the kettle black. I just read your post in Samsung articles. Oh, and apple sales have fallen just like all phone makers.

20. blastertoad

Posts: 39; Member since: Jul 17, 2018

I will counter the pixel has the worst notch. Cuts in much deeper and the curve radius on each corner set is different.

6. karll1

Posts: 23; Member since: Jun 12, 2013

Agreed. Companies intentionally add design flaws to allow for iterative upgrades to correct these "flaws" on the next version release. Take for example the Galaxy S8 and the horrible fingerprint scanner location. Their initial reason of the poor location was because of space restrictions due to the large battery on the GS8. Guess what? It wasn't an issue anymore on the Galaxy S9 even with a larger battery. I will be waiting for the GS11 to fix the design flaws in the GS10.

12. sgodsell

Posts: 7028; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

The S10 is one of the first to use the under the screen acoustic scanners. With the recent updates it scans your finger print really well. Even if your finger is wet.

21. Leo_MC

Posts: 6935; Member since: Dec 02, 2011

“Companies intentionally add design flaws to allow for iterative upgrades to correct these "flaws" on the next version release.” That’s just wrong. What would stop another company to build the “flawless phone” and get all the clients from the market?

24. sgodsell

Posts: 7028; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

There is always new hardware coming down the pipes. Just look at the new hardware in the Android world. Well maybe not in the Apple camp, but once it's in the Android world, some of it trickles down to the Apple world.

25. Leo_MC

Posts: 6935; Member since: Dec 02, 2011

I’m not talking to you, troll, until you answer my question about why you obsess so much about Apple.

28. sissy246

Posts: 7035; Member since: Mar 04, 2015

Once again, pot calling the kettle black. So, it's ok for you and your buddies to invade Samsung articles but, no one should post in apple articles LMAO

10. Shubham412302

Posts: 568; Member since: Nov 09, 2011

you forgot headphone jack

13. shortkey

Posts: 52; Member since: May 19, 2017

I used to have the 2013 Xperia L with the curved back and it felt amazing. Same with the Xperia M, which was more subtle. I still miss those phones. Especially how small they were, I mean, four inches, you can't get any more comfortable to hold and use than that.

17. User123456789

Posts: 666; Member since: Feb 22, 2019

The curves of XZ2 are much curved than old low end xperia.

23. TheOracle1

Posts: 2151; Member since: May 04, 2015

"I mean, four inches, you can't get any more comfortable to hold and use than that." Totally useless for media consumption which is what phones are primarily used for these days.

18. lyndon420

Posts: 6599; Member since: Jul 11, 2012

What's wrong with having a slightly curved back? My beloved Nexus 6 felt great in the hand, and it had none of the other annoying features you mentioned. The only thing it needed was a removable back and a battery that could be easily replaced by the consumer. I think it would create less waste and allow us consumers to enjoy our phones longer if we could just go back to swappable batteries like Android phones used to be capable of.

26. TBomb

Posts: 1276; Member since: Dec 28, 2012

you are picky AF dangg,...

2. Rizo11

Posts: 13; Member since: Apr 27, 2015

It's not a mistake. In my S8+ almost every time i touch it, even for just change position, accidently press this d@mn button. Now with the double tap and ultrasonic no need to press power button so often. So better there for me. No more fail press..

4. cmdacos

Posts: 3969; Member since: Nov 01, 2016

While I don't accidently press buttons, I do agree that the power button at this point is an afterthought. There is rarely ever a need to use it.

15. TheOracle1

Posts: 2151; Member since: May 04, 2015

I hardly use the power button on my phone. There's raise to wake, double tap to sleep, a lock widget and bottom quick settings with the volume and brightness sliders along with a power off widget. I've even moved my Chrome navigation bar to the bottom and changed my dialer to one with a bottom search bar. In other words software corrects most of those "mistakes" and compensates for the big screen. Oh and an in screen fingerprint scanner.

7. CEDEOTB

Posts: 376; Member since: Nov 21, 2016

Curved screens are the dumbest thing. Barely any benefits and just sacrifices durability and adds glare.

8. lnrts99 unregistered

So the author of this article specifically called out the S10 and Pixel phones as having "nonsensical" designs but didn't do the same for the iPhone even with it's obvious design flaws? To cover he shows a picture of a 4 year old iPhone bending. Well PhoneArena this is the last article I am reading from you. Tech blogs are abundant out there so there is no lacking.

16. apple-rulz

Posts: 1940; Member since: Dec 27, 2016

Bye, and don’t come back!

29. mosavage

Posts: 2; Member since: Jun 21, 2019

Bye,we don’t wanna see u again.enjoy ur leave

11. Cat97

Posts: 1804; Member since: Mar 02, 2017

Thank Jerry Rig Everything, Apple and the YouTube bend craze for some of these "mistakes". If people didn't care about the bending (which is really a non-issue), manufacturers would correctly place buttons and side-mounted fingerprint sensors. It is a small but significant example on how the social media has a negative influence on the world.

19. mackan84

Posts: 282; Member since: Feb 13, 2014

What annoys me the most with iPhones is that I take about 30 screenshots a month when I want to use the volume-buttons...

22. Leo_MC

Posts: 6935; Member since: Dec 02, 2011

I was just thinking about the same thing; the easiest thing to do is to change the combination of actions “power +“ and that issue gets fixed.

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