HTC talks smartphone design: from inception to final product

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HTC talks smartphone design: from inception to final product

At the Frequencies media summit in Seattle over the last two days, HTC walked us through the fine details on how its smartphones are developed, going from the boring rectangular ABS block to the more refined plastic mockups that are presented to carriers and focus groups -- the findings of which then shape the final product. Sadly, we weren't allowed to take photos of the One X mockups that were shown to us, but do read on to learn the general process of how an HTC phone goes from inception to the final product.

An HTC phone starts out somewhere between four months and a year before reaching to the ABS block mockup stage. During this time engineers figure out the next best way to put the phone together, as well as finding the best weight and the best components for certain models, so that the actual size of them feel good in our hands. In the US, HTC talks to carriers to find out what technologies (such as chipsets, displays and radios) they want to enable, as well as learning what size, appearance, feeling and functions their customers are asking for. HTC has even conducted smartphone deprivation studies to see what features the participants missed the most: phones were taken away for two weeks, and during the period people had to document what they missed about their smartphones, as well as noting whether they had found other ways to do what they'd normally do with their phones.

When asked about whether we will see the QWERTY keyboard in future HTC devices, design firm One & Co's Claude Zellweger didn't seem to be a fan:

"As a company on the QWERTY keyboard we're sort of moving away from them in general."

But there's still hope. In response to whether there's still room for QWERTY keyboards in HTC's lineup, Claude said his team's just waiting:

"I think the market's there, the sort of the diehard community, they keep wanting it, there's definitely still a market for it. We feel that putting too much effort in that would take away from our main focus, being a whole-screen device. I think people recognize the trade-off with size. There are a couple of technologies that we are waiting to sort of mature that could make a big bump suddenly in the evolution, that we are looking at very closely."

We also discussed battery life and competing phones that come with physically larger batteries (especially the Droid Razr Maxx), but Vice President of Phone Strategy Bjorn Kilburn claims that for most customers going into the shops, power consumption is not on the top of their lists. In fact, HTC claimed it tested a large battery concept with selected customers and carriers last year, but it didn't sell. It turns out people just prefer thinner phones (or at least initially they do), and therefore HTC chose to take a holistic approach to improving battery life through power management optimization, choice of power density, choice of voltage and many more. HTC's preference to wired charging over the comparatively slower wireless charging also helps reduce phone downtime, of course.

With the sets of basic specifications and features set in stone, HTC's engineers can then offer the right phone sizes that meet the carriers' requirements, as well as showing a relatively bland rectangular ABS block as an indication on how much space is needed to pack all the components. From then onwards, the designers join in and work with the carriers to boil down to a few phone ideas, the best of which are then presented to focus groups in the form of refined mockups. In these sessions, HTC doesn't just listen to what the participants want more or less of, but it mainly observes what people do with the mockups in their hands, as well as studying their emotional feedback. By the way, on average these mockups cost about $3,000 to $5,000 per unit, and to get one phone arranged in the US, HTC could easily accumulate up to $50,000 worth of mockups for that one phone alone!


Sometimes HTC also throws in some super bright colors to get some feedback from focus groups, and one time it even had a "you've got to be joking" reaction from carriers over a recent pink prototype. Claude didn't outright dismiss the color, but he's not keen on the idea of a pink One X:

"Pink can be done right, but I don't think it's right to take a hero device like that and just turn it pink."

We as customers don't see that many color options from HTC, anyway -- it's mainly black, gray and white these days. There are a few reasons for this: for starters, there are certain colors that HTC has to avoid, particularly those that are associated with US carrier loyalty -- blue to AT&T, red to Verizon and yellow to Sprint. Obviously, it'd be difficult to convince the carriers to pick up a device that comes in a competitor's color; though there are certain exceptions, like the red highlight on the primarily-black EVO 4G LTE on Sprint. Another exception is the purple MyTouch 4G on T-Mobile, which was the first color that sold out.

HTC's Product Strategy Manager Eric Lin personally thinks that purple and cyan are two colors that do really well, especially them being popular accent colors on sneakers from the more stylish brands; but these are only for people who are in touch with style enough, and there's not that many people. In response to a question on HTC seemingly favoring white devices over time, Eric pointed out that with more men owning smartphones than women, the color really helps open up smartphones to women, even if the phones are larger than what the women would normally consider (like the One S vs the One X, as he observed in a focus group -- many women eventually chose the latter for the white option). Of course, the purple Rhyme was a different example but with a similar goal -- it was a special project where Verizon wanted to see if it could make a phone that'd get away from the hyper-masculine Droid aura, and the color was chosen through studies. Can't say that was a successful attempt, though.

Then there's the personal image: HTC suggests that a lot of people want their phones to be their symbol of success, which means the phones themselves need a professional look, so glossiness and bright colors aren't for everyone. However, as you may have seen in our hands-on already, HTC's colorful cases for the One X should take care of some of the minority while also letting the majority protect their phones.

So these are some the key points in the long process of design development of an HTC phone, where engineers and designers push each other to uncomfortable realm, before eventually delivering the near-final product to Peter Chou for his ultimate test on the size, feel in hand, feel in pocket and even the ringtones. If you need more convincing on how much of a hands-on CEO Mr. Chou is, here's some video proof starring him and Chairwoman Cher Wang -- just go ahead and skip to 1:47:

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