Design Woes: Can We Get What We Want?

Design Woes: Can We Get What We Want?

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There are many things to love about the mobile industry, and when it comes to Android, I think one of them is that there’s something for just about everyone. The OEMs of today cover many different demographics for those that want this, or that. And things like a phone’s design aren’t excluded either – but what I think is really interesting about this last bit is just how apparent the different approaches are. I’m not just talking about the aesthetics, mind you; but it seems that the word “design” has become synonymous with the exterior look of a phone, and I can’t help but notice some very interesting aspects of this design conundrum.

Recently we published a feature that touched on the underlying contrast between the experience design strategies of the Watch Urbane and the Pebble Time; with the recent leaks of the Galaxy S6 and the One M9, we see another interesting contrast between the M9’s evolution and the S6’s revolution, both of which seemingly failed to attract customers the way they meant to. And it seems to be because OEMs don’t get the full picture just yet.

Let’s start with the HTC M9: The predecessor for this phone was widely considered the best in Android design, hands down. It won dozens of “Phone of the Year” awards from various websites almost entirely relying on that very fact. The more “holistic” tech sites infinitely praised its beauty, but so did the often grounded technical reviewers. It was simply a success in that regard. But it wasn’t enough to pull the company forward the way many thought it deserved, though, and the lower than expected market share outcome was said to continue in 2015. Strategy Analytics’ wireless practice director Neil Mawston made it pretty clear: “without a revolutionary new product in its lineup, HTC is unlikely to set the world on fire in the near-term”.

In this sense, it is obvious that HTC hasn’t listened. The latest leaks confirmed the stale design that many were wishing wasn’t real, and with the confirmation, social media and enthusiast forums broke loose with comments about how HTC’s design revision prompted them to opt out of the product altogether. Personally, I understand that design is a huge deal for some people, as it is important to me as well, but I couldn’t help wondering… is this behavior justified? That question is a rough one, but the Android industry is moving onto more holistic terms than what it once had. Back in the days of the G1, or the OG Droid, the designs weren’t as intricately exquisite as what HTC put out last year; and Android users didn’t bat an eye at that. Those wanting to dive into the essence of what the OS offers flocked to the platform despite the cheap plastic, awkward trackballs, or whatever oddities those times brought.

Did HTC need a whole new design? Some would argue that it wasn’t necessary given the immense praise HTC had gotten before. Some little oddities that warranted criticism, such as the power button location, were addressed. The black bar is still there, however, but that never stopped the M8 from being a looker. The real improvements are under the hood, and HTC’s leaked videos even showed some interesting software additions such as the context-sensitive homescreen widgets, the new theme engine and the fun camera functionality. Let’s not forget it dropped the ultrapixel camera that stopped the M8 from being the most compelling package of 2014. When the design is established as a great one and they seemingly improved everything else – especially the shortcomings – can we really give them this much flak? Given the fact the fast-paced mobile industry of today, I personally think we can.

The Galaxy S6 had to adopt an opposite strategy: whereas the M8 was touted to have one of the best designs, the S5 was considered one of the worst. The cheap plastic remained, but the significant increase in bezels was absolutely retrograde considering the S4 had some of the best bezel-screen ratios out there. And ultimately, people were just tired of the outdated design language that nobody seemed to really like in the first place. This is especially contrasting with HTC, because whereas the public pushed Samsung to fix what was broken, they also expected a revolution from HTC of what they had unanimously agreed didn’t need fixing. Then we had leaks showing us good views of the phone, and unlike with HTC, I’ve read many comments saying that Samsung did a pretty good job on the design.

But the new materials and structure of the S6 and S6 Edge meant things that consumers did hate, such as no removable battery and, seemingly no sdcard slot either. While the One M9’s evolution meant little change to the core package, the S6’s revolution brought with it too much of it; in the end, it cost the phone some of the best features it could have had. So what does this tell us?

My guess is that the Android world is in a sort of transition between its old pragmatic approach and consumer base to more holistic ones. Take the case of Apple: they’ve embraced the idea of the iPhone being this package meant to be taken by what it is, rather than what it lacks. Do iPhones have tons of RAM? Or an sdcard slot? Or a removable battery? We know the answers, yet the question as to why people don’t care or why reviewers don’t bat an eye remains unasked. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take a genius to know that Apple’s customers, when generalized, care a little more about the design and dare I say, the meaning of owning an iPhone, more than they care about what it actually offers over Android. And in this world of appearances, design is king. Yet because this transition seemingly overrides many of the virtues of Android’s practical evolution, we see the two tides collide every now and then.

The fact of the matter is that the expectations of the public grow with each iteration, but the process is harder to iterate upon each time. Performance in phones is reaching homogeneity as specs get higher to the point of frivolity, and things like screens see no pragmatic evolution despite the constant bumps in resolution. Cameras are packing many more megapixels that we’ll actually need on our 4K TV’s and our low-resolution social media feeds, and so on and so forth. Upgrading all of these is, regardless, compulsory for every OEM, every year, to keep up in the spec race. And so is design; but expecting a one-piece metal phone with a sapphire display, the best specifications and a gorgeous design all for the typical $650 is a dream many of us will never see come true, and we know it.

HTC undoubtedly needs a good product to stay relevant in a world where giants like Xiaomi are stealthily eating away at its share. From what we know, the M9 looks to be just that – a good product. And I can’t help but shake the feeling that if we never had a gorgeous One M8, this phone would be the absolute winner in most people’s eyes. But their expectations grew, and sadly it seems they couldn’t keep up despite improving the things that they needed to address, things that perhaps matter just as much. Then the S6 also had it rough, but not because it did a bad job or half-assed job like HTC, but because its terrific (or at the very least, extensive) revision meant features people love were taken away.

Can we ever get what we want? Like with smartwatches, it seems the Android consumer base is deeply fragmented into those who want new designs and those who want new functionality, with not as many sitting in the middle. This makes sense given that we are reaching a plateau in groundbreaking innovation. But the contradictions arise when we expect them to fix what doesn’t need to, or when someone breaks what we love by fixing what we want. This situation is rather confusing and there’s no right or wrong; the new design of the M8 might not entice the people who love new aesthetics, but the fixes and new features will surely attract those who want a better user experience. In contrast, the S6’s new design will kindle the desire of those who grew older of Samsung’s over-tried looks, but the removal of key (and increasingly unique) features understandably detracts those looking to get more out of their phone.

How can we get what we want? Motorola offers a great phone (and soon watch) builder option with the Moto Maker that allows you to design your phone to some extent – maybe these kind of alternatives will grow in popularity and begin to be offered by others, perhaps in better ways. As long as there’s little communication or seemingly poor logistics, and a fragmented customer base that it itself doesn’t know what it wants, we might not see the “perfect package” for a while. The manufacturers outside of this polarizing spotlight do a great job at balancing it all out, like Sony with their Z line and Motorola with their Moto X series, but at the same time their lack of extreme or frivolous pursuits don’t get them the same level of buzz as the more talked-about players, and in the end, their balanced and amazing experiences are overshadowed. The future of the S6 and M9 are unclear, and we’ll know much more in a couple of days. As of now, we can either hope that the leaks are ploys, or accept that this round of flagships won’t bring us the phones we universally want just yet.

What kind of design do you want, and how do you think you will get it?