When the first iPhone saw the light of day more than a decade ago, it fundamentally changed both the media landscape, as well as human behavior itself. Genesis: The era of smartphones had begun. Almost 15 years in, it is time to draw some conclusions.
The idea is good, but…
Perhaps the title of this blog is a giant spoiler in itself, if not, here is one: Smartphones are crap! Bear with me to find out why.
It’s not the idea itself, in fact quite the opposite. The idea is brilliant! One device for all your needs, always up to date, always connected to the world. That has been the stuff of science fiction for decades, from Star Trek to Knight Rider. Demand is real and the idea is brilliant.
The technical side is also quite good, depending on where you live of course. In Denmark, where IT-Kartellet is based, there are not many places where you don’t have access to 4G. I am big time into camping trips on my bicycle, so I get to fairly remote places within our small nation by the sea. I can not remember many, if any, situations where I got lost due to bad connections or where I could not have a video call while sitting at a bonfire on the beach. So for all that matters, it is my impression, that smartphones work as intended. They connect as they should, fast enough to make the experience a pleasant one.
The cultural aspects are somewhat dubious, but still within reason. Sure; apps, instant messaging, calls, emails, games etc. are super addictive and can be somewhat overwhelming to the individual. However, we are still independent, mature human beings and in control of, which channels we want to use on our device and which we choose to avoid. If the facebook app steals your sleep, than you can delete it. It is not like you are forced to use a Smartphone and one could actually argue, that with the increased standardization/popularity of the Smartphone, not using one is a fashionable statement in it’s own.
The flaws of the smartphone, which I want to talk, about are on the surface about the design of the device. But many of them run deeper than that. They are related to the flaws in society, in us as human beings in the neoliberal, consumer world, which once again took a great idea, a real demand and technical capability and turned it into overpriced, badly designed pieces of shit.
What is What is good design?
Before we get into my rant about bad design, we have to establish, what good design actually is. Well, let’s keep it simple: Good design serves people. It serves them through function, durability, sustainability and availability(cost). It takes the ecosystem into account, knows no states, classes, races or religions and always tries to make life easier for people. It adapts to the user case, instead of making the user adapt to its premise.
It does not serve production, nor companies, and it does not serve any individual financially. Good design is open source, not copyright. Good design improves life quality, meets actual demands (luxury and status are not demands!) and is therefore available for everyone who needs it. That is good design in a nutshell.(1)
The smartphones does not meet any of these criteria’s, and even you argue it does, then if only to a limited extent. On closer inspection, they turn out to be astonishingly naïve, clumsy and I am certain, that they in a hundred years will be a joke similar to anything that is a hundred years old today. Future humans will, in between cursing our in-action with regards to the climate emergency, laugh about our deluded worshipping of these devices.
The good, the bad and the ugly
But before we get to all the things that make smartphones bad, we'd better first look at the design aspects in which the smartphone actually shines: They are equally bad for right and left-handers.
That may sound sarcastic, but it is meant seriously. Smartphones are largely subject to complete consumption and a total sense aesthetic that excludes every logic or rational. The pure mathematical shape, the slippery material (try to hold an Iphone 6 with sweaty hands) is not at all designed for human hands. The only good thing about this narrow approach to design is, that developers understood the fact that there are right and left-handers, hence made one design for both hands. This is often enough forgotten elsewhere, so I want to give them credit for it. However, it is also quite likely, that the same reason why all smartphones look alike is the same reason, why they are equally bad for left- and right-handed individuals.
Another good thing is, that we as of now, are down to “just” two kinds of chargers used: USB-C and Lightning [Footnote usb-mini may be still around, but not at a level, but it is discontinued]. 2 options are still one to many, but a big improvement from the pre-smartphone era, where every brand had it’s own charger!
Form follows function
Smartphones are compact multi-communication devices that should be operated with at least one hand. So why doesn't the design take ergonomic considerations into account? Interdisciplinary cooperation is a basic requirement of good design and if you do not consult an expert, who can develop a shape adapted to the hand, when designing an object that is to be held in a perons hand(s), youre approach is just ridiculous. Usability is always superior to aesthetics. You can always make a working thing pretty, but you got it backwards, if you are trying to make a pretty thing work.
There's no reason to think organic design is uglier than mathematical shapes and smartphones are simply too slick, too small, too cubist. They don't match the shape of the hand and just as that, they fail the basic test for good design. If you think I am exaggerating, just think about the whole industry of third party accessories out there. One focus of these product are rings or popsockets, which helps you hold your device I one hand. They tell are story of failed design.
Drop it like it’s hot
Speaking of holding a slippery, mis-shaped device in one hand: You will eventually drop your device at some point. Smartphones are articles of daily use and will eventually end of in free fall. But the materials used are not geared towards stability - as the immense industry of cases, bags and similar, so-called gagdets, impressively proves. Again, the approach is backwards: If people tend to drop their smartphones, then the devices have to be built to be more stable. It is useless to use glass or other porous, poorly processed material. It's good capitalism and creates value due to service and reperations, but it has nothing to do with sustainability and good design. Resistant, weatherproof material with long durability must be used. Nothing else can even be considered.
The inner workings and the workmanship are worth a blog post of its own. They tell the tale of modern slavery, a world we know and which we ignore because we are trained not to take responsibility for other people outside our community, nation, continent. The raw materials used are being harvested by wage – and perhaps real - slaves in third world countries and then put together partly by machine, but mostly by the hands of thousands of workers across Asia. The people in company villages like Foxconn work long days, doing hard labor under enormous pressure and suicide amongst workers is quite common. The big producers maintain entire cities for the mass production of electrical appliances under inhumane conditions. We know that - we don't care. Obviously, undermining people’s rights on a global scale is serious design flaw!
Battery is here to stay
But let’s assume, these design flaws are fixed. Your smartphone is now produced fairly and sits comfortably in your hand. Now the question of performance arises. Optimal resolution of the screen, the question of buttons, outputs and inputs, exchangeable and expandable elements, as well as cameras and lighting conditions are all dependent on one central elemt: the battery.
If the battery is empty, the principle of the smartphone is forfeited. Inferior batteries, with embarrassing running times and lifetimes are shameful. After all this time on the market, companies are seriously advertising current devices with an operational time for around 24 hours at a time. This is a joke and by no means holds up to a reality. This is once again showcased by the industry of mobile charging solutions out there. Manufacturers try to solve this design flaw by decreasing the time needed to charge the device, but this just a band aid on the bad design and by no means addressing the real problem.
The performance of the devices must increase significantly in order to be able to serve people propper and by the way, a revision of the form, the breaking out of patterns, usually opens up a completely new perspective. A good example of that are the Lenovo Yoga tablets. Just like these devices, an ergonomically shaped smartphone could easily hold a larger battery.[Footnote link]
And then are the other, boring design flaws: Spare parts must be cheap and interchangeable without prior knowledge. The Fairphone already does a lot of that, including trying to source raw materials in fair conditions. But all the major companies deliberately seal their product and threaten customers to lose their warranty if they dare to fix something themselves. They spit directly in the face of every consumer.
The smartphone has changed human behaviour and this has to be taking into account – both with regards to hardware, but also software. Smartphones are becoming extremely private and – like it or not - people tend to store intimate material on their smartphones. We know this not only because we may do it ourselves, but because nude pictures, text messages or other captivating material is constantly leaked. Without a doubt, security needs to be an even higher priority then it has been so far.
Finally: Why do I need another object are to accomplish such a simple task as inserting/changing the SIM card? Bad design, again and again.
Thank you for making it all the way to the end. Smartphones are fascinating, innovative, but also deadly and trashy at the same time. As I said in the beginning and you probably realize by now, the bad design choices are due to the state of the world. A lot of bad design decision make sense in a neoliberal mindset, but that is far from meeting the demands of humans. However, on a consumer level, it is important to raise awareness and to let people now, that the status quo never has to be accepted. If you have adjusted to the products you buy, than the problem is not within you – it is the product, that has failed you!