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Confessions of a cell phone designer

Bad design, worthwhile rewards, and tricky internal politics. It's not every day you get to hear from someone on the front lines about how a cell phone gets designed.


Editors' note: Today's post is the second in a two-part series. Yesterday's blog post, "The birth of a cell phone," explains the difficult dance between the carrier and phone maker that ends with a new cell phone in the carrier's lineup (and hopefully applause all around). Today's post takes a closer look at that relationship. None of the sources in this series is an official spokesperson, and all wished to remain anonymous.

What does it take to bring a cell phone to life? As I quickly discovered, there's a lot going on beneath the surface. We see when a phone design goes right, but rarely do we get a glimpse of the pressures that all involved must negotiate before a phone can see the light of day. Tight deadlines typically make design work fast and furious. Strong beliefs spark debate on both sides, and sometimes the design that wins out comes down to which side's director bends first. Politics can make or break a design, and poor decisions can lead to financial failures.

I had the rare opportunity to hear from a candid designer about the ups, downs, and complicated politics behind designing cell phone interfaces. The designer in question has spent the last decade working on both the carrier and OEM sides (original device manufacturer). I asked a long list of pretty direct questions. While it wasn't possible to share everything I learned, good and bad, here are some of the choicer responses that shine a light on a lesser-known perspective and experience from within the mobile industry, straight from the horse's mouth.

Inside the designer's head

What it takes to be a good designer
"Designers can be pretty arrogant (laughs); really picky about things. They're really visual, so their work spaces are usually crowded with things, like stacks of papers and designs. I think designers are constantly looking for different inspirations so there's also a lot of passing around, like 'Oh, look at this new weird table that was designed in Norway.' The best designers are curious."

On bad design
"If people are constantly aware of the interface, it's bad design. If you give [someone] a phone they're not familiar with and you say, 'Make a phone call' and they're really fumbling around and look like they're having trouble, then probably you didn't design [right]."

Mitch Butler

On designing for teenagers
"We wanted to design something that they thought was cool, not what the hipster people designing it thought was cool. We don't want people to think we're posers. It's like your dad trying to act cool by wearing a cool shirt. We didn't want that fake kind of, you know, 'This phone was designed by 40-year-olds for teens. Isn't this rad?!'"

What's the largest misconception about designing products?
"That the designers have all the control. 'If the design is bad, it's the designer's fault.' That's not the case. It could be part of the reason why, but it's almost never the whole reason why. That's because there's so many factors that go into the design, you know, the design passes through so many hands. It's like, from the very start somebody has a feature idea. There's probably a couple different ways to design it; one design has to win out. Will it be the best design? Who knows? It depends on who's judging it, right? And how people feel that day."

Frustrations and rewards

When designs don't come out as envisioned
"In [a high-profile product I worked on] there are some things that are not as streamlined as they could be, and it happens like that for a variety of reasons. Maybe the right API wasn't open to us, so we had to do some kludgy fix. Or maybe the developers didn't have time because of the schedule to implement it the way [we designers] wanted. Or there was some kind of security problem. Or Legal says we have to show things in this order with this amount of content on the screen."

On user feedback
"Sometimes you read the feedback and you're like, 'Yeah, that does suck!' Because you know where all the problems are with the design, so when people point it out, you're like, 'Yeah, that's right.'"

The more rewarding aspect of the job
"The most rewarding is actually seeing something that I've designed actually go to market, and having people use it."

"Sometimes you have to let them win a little bit. It's kind of like a relationship."

The most frustrating?
"When some nondesigner, usually somebody from upper management or whatever, has a feature and you think it's crap, but you have to do it [because upper management insists]. That's bad. The worst is when you talk to the OEM and they have to do it.

"Their designers make all the same arguments to you that you had made to the person who came up with the idea, but there's nothing you can do. You have to push this bad idea even though you know it's a bad idea. If you have a good relationship with the designers on the other end, you can kind of wink your eye and say, 'I totally understand and there's nothing I can do about this.' You just have to make the most of it. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen. Defending a design you know sucks is horrible.

Bosses, blow-ups, and friendly fire

When a product manager is like a significant other
"The product managers sometimes have really bad ideas, but ultimately they're the ones responsible for the product, and you need to know when to push back and when to just do what they say. Like, if they have a suggestion and you don't really agree with it, sometimes you just have to say 'OK' and you change it. I know it's a game, but sometimes you have to let them win a little bit. It's kind of like a relationship..."

Carriers versus device makers, sparks inevitable
"As an OEM, you just want [the carriers] to freaking buy the phone and shut up, and you want them to buy a lot of phones, right? 'Take what we have and use it!' They already think that they have the best product. Not that things can't be improved, but obviously they care about the quality of the product, and maintaining their brand image, and they want to sell a lot of phones, and they just want to put out good stuff. But obviously [if] the carrier finds fault with something or they want these extra features, and then the negotiations begin."

Smartphone design
Josh Long/CNET

When carriers and OEMs collide
"I've been on both sides. If you're an OEM and you're working with a carrier, you know your operating system better than anybody. You know how long it's going to take your developers to do stuff, you know why you didn't include certain features. Carrier comes over: 'We want you to change this, this, and this.' Like, no! I don't want to change this. It works fine! We've usability-tested it, people can use it. Carrier's like, 'No.' And [maybe] they haven't done any research, you don't know where they're coming from, [maybe] it's just on a whim, they've decided that they don't like the way something works and they want to change it.

"From the OEM's perspective, their [stuff's] already coded, so it's a big deal to change the [visual] design. If something needs to be redesigned, it means it needs to be recoded and it needs to be retested. So making one change in the design has this ripple effect.

"As the carrier, let's say you really want to get your point across and you don't give a crap what the OEM wants, you need to drive your idea. You just keep going up and up and up and up until it hits the highest level and somebody bullies somebody else into doing it, and that's when it gets ugly."

Oh really? Are there any big blowouts?
"People are civil. I mean, people will get upset or shake their heads or there might be feelings hurt. You can imagine if you just spent a month designing something and somebody's criticizing your design, you're not going to react well to it.

"If you can't solve it at the lower level, both sides escalate. Sometimes it happens behind closed doors and all of a sudden there's the decision and you just kind of go with it."

Friendly fire
"Design teams take on their own personality and sometimes two different teams collide. Some teams are polite and welcoming and other teams are brutally honest. This could happen at the same company or when an outside design agency is brought in.

"[My design team] actually had problems with another design team within the same company. We'd say you had to put the kid gloves on to talk to them, because they were not trained designers; most of them started in other places and then got into design. People who go through design school are used to getting critiqued, because that's how you get graded. Very often you have to stand in front of people and present your designs. These are all things that happen in the real world. When people ask you questions, you better have a freaking reason why you put that button in that place, why is that button that color, why does it not have a drop shadow, why, why, why, why, why?

"We said, 'these icons are ugly' and they got really upset with us. But they were ugly! [laughs] So what can you do? We didn't think of ourselves as mean, we were just being honest about the design. We were always under such tight timelines; we had to be very direct."