iPhone 4: Triumph of the design nerds

Apple's new phone represents above all the new power of designers over engineers and usability specialists.

The creation of a consumer electronics product involves input from a wide range of people, including marketers, engineers and usability experts. The task of product leadership is to pick and choose among competing agendas to arrive at the best product.

It's difficult to do, because often there is no way to solve a design problem that pleases everyone.

The design priorities of the products we buy often reveal the internal power dynamics of the companies that built them. By understanding the design decisions a company faced, and looking at its choices, you can figure out which types of people are influential in the internal give-and-take leading up to a final product design, and which types are relatively powerless.

Why the iPhone 4 reveals designer power

The iPhone 4 is a marvel of industrial design. Form and function are united beautifully, and it's an incredibly useful phone. I bought one. I love it.

But three design decisions by Apple demonstrate a new boldness, a new level of power by hard-core designers inside Apple -- and a corresponding weakness by engineers and usability specialists.

In these three design areas, Apple was presented with a clear decision between design elegance and usability and chose design elegance every time.

1. The shape

Handset makers have universally understood for at least 10 years that the shape of a phone is more important than its size. The earliest PDAs and cell phones were clunky blocks with flat fronts and backs and relatively sharp edges. But handset makers quickly realized that if you make the edges thinner, with a curving back, the phone could actually be pretty thick in the middle, but it would "feel" like it was thinner. It would also look less obtrusive in a pocket than a thinner but uncurved phone.

A curved back also makes phones easier to handle. If the back of a phone is thicker in the middle, the center of the phone presses against the palm, making it harder to drop and easier to hold.

This handy bit of knowledge has been used in cell phones ever since, up to and including the iPhone 3G S.

The iPhone 4 is 24% thinner than the iPhone 3G S, but it's more awkward to hold. I hate to say it, but it's true.

I put my iPhone 4 in one pocket of my jeans, and my old 3G S in the other (with the curved back facing out), and you can't even tell the 3G S is in the pocket, whereas the iPhone 4 is clearly visible.

If you have both handsets, hold one in each hand, then put one in each of your front pockets. You'll see for yourself that Apple chose design elegance over usability.

The iPhone's design, up to and including the iPhone 3G, demonstrated a conspicuous balance between the various competing groups within Apple. Yes, it was elegantly designed with minimalist features, colors, materials and shapes. However, compromises to pure design elegance were made for the sake of usability. The contoured back. The rounded controls and buttons. The whole shape of previous generations of iPhones revealed smart usability people strongly influencing the design process.

The iPhone 4, however, demonstrates that the industrial design nerds inside Apple have gained so much power that they have deliberately sacrificed usability in order to achieve a higher level of industrial design elegance, represented by balance and symmetry.

In the case of the phone's shape, Apple has for the first time in the history of its phones clearly chosen form over function.

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