Is fashion a stronger motivator than functionality?

Marek Pawlowski, PMNThis article by Marek Pawlowski, founder of MEX and Editorial Director at PMN, is intended to provoke and inspire discussion around MEX Manifesto #4, entitled ‘Fashion is a stronger motivator than functionality‘ ahead of the MEX conference in London next month (27th – 28th May).

For the MEX event, we have brought together an ‘all star’ team comprising 8 of the industry’s most creative thinkers from across industrial, interaction and interface design to lead conference delegates through a live design exercise on this theme. I hope you’ll join us by registering for the conference.

Nokia 6600 design sketch

Nokia 6600 design sketch

Style. Trend. Fashion. Words like these are part of a new vocabulary increasingly employed by the mobile business to describe handset products. For example, Nokia announced three new devices yesterday (the 6600 Slide, 6600 Fold and 3600) under the tag line ‘Beautiful to use.’ The accompanying press release was built around phrases like: ‘stunning and sophisticated looks’, ‘smooth, minimalist design’ and ‘core design language’.

If we go back to 2003 – the last time Nokia announced a handset bearing the 6600 model number – we find a very different approach. The press release from 16th June 2003 talks about a handset: ‘packed with compelling features’ and a ‘tri-band (GSM 900/1800/1900) phone’ for the ‘multitasking, mobile workforce’. It goes on to describe the original 6600’s ability to access ‘mobile content via the XHTML browser’. I counted 14 acronyms in all. In contrast, yesterday’s 6600 press release had just 3.

That’s quite a change in just under 5 years. Perhaps the handset business is finally starting to talk the same language as its customers? You can watch a video interview with Aki Laine, the lead designer of the new Nokia 6600, here.

There are several factors driving this. On the one hand, the commoditisation of core mobile phone functionality and the emergence of ‘white label’ contract manufacturers in the Far East is enabling design-led brands from outside the mobile industry to launch products of their own. Prada, Armani, Levi, TAG Heuer and Porsche are just a few of the companies to have taken this approach. In doing so, they have forced existing mobile manufacturers to explore partnerships with them, which inevitably leads to an increased focus on aesthetics within the incumbents own portfolio.

Second-tier mobile manufacturers and ‘white labels’ which lack a brand of their own have been particularly keen to pursue these partnerships. Alcatel, part of Chinese manufacturer TCL, has been active in this space for some time, launching handset products for magazine brand Elle and fashion label Mandarina Duck.

Alcatel has formed a separate business unit – the Brand Design Lab – under director Vittorio di Mauro, which bills itself as ‘the strategic business partner for fashion, media and lifestyle brands in mobile personal communication’.

I was chairing ARCchart’s recent Handset Fashion Congress in London and was interested to hear di Mauro describing the role these partnerships have played in reviving the Alcatel handset business.

A few years ago, the problems at the company were well known, leading to the sale of the handset division to TCL in 2004. The business went through extensive restructuring, with research and development centralised at lower cost centres in China. Alcatel brought all of the elements required for launching unique, branded devices back in-house, enabling it to offer a ‘one stop shop’ to brands. The Design Lab launched in 2005 and now operates from Shenzen, Shanghai and Milan.

Elle Handset Collection

Partnerships with brands like Elle have helped Alcatel’s handset business back to profitability

The company returned to profitability in 2006 and has since had 7 straight quarters without loss. It is on target to ship 16m – 18m units in 2008, up about 40 percent from 2007. Some of these will be under its own brand, but increasingly it is leveraging its partnerships with brands like Elle and Mandarina Duck to boost its premium sales. For instance, di Mauro stated that the first Elle product sold about 250,000 units.

However, di Mauro was candid about the challenges in this space. He described the business as ‘brutally tough’, particularly in a market where the supply chain conditions are so massively slanted in favour of Nokia, which ships about 40 percent of the world’s handsets – about 30 times more than Alcatel. It’s tough to compete against those economies of scale, so Alcatel is trying to remain small, nimble and flexible.

He also stressed the importance of offering brands a complete, in-house design service, allowing them to do much more than just add their logo to an existing handset. His team works with brand clients to evolve a wide range of user experience elements, from a customised handset UI to retail packaging and accessories.

The client relationships themselves can be challenging. Companies with strong brands, particularly those in the fashion world, are used to operating on 2 month lead times. In contrast, mobile handsets usually take between 18 and 24 months to develop. The fashion business tends to have a more dynamic structure, enabling companies to jump on niche opporunities as they emerge. In a market where trends are fleeting and tastes can change overnight, you need to be able to respond quickly.

For the mobile business, this means restructuring the handset development process to enable short term, low unit volume projects to be profitable. For the fashion brands, it means developing an understanding of the complexity and integration times involved in creating good mobile devices.

To-date, many of the products marketed as ‘fashion handsets’ have been built around one central feature: brand presence. In some cases, they seem to have earned this moniker simply because they carry a famous name and are marketed through non-traditional retail channels, like fashion boutiques and magazines. This opportunistic practice has given rise to its own term – ‘brand slapping’ – which describes the process of applying a brand to an existing handset and making only a few minor cosmetic changes to the user experience.

I believe the real opportunities in this market will emerge once the mobile business becomes more discerning. Manufacturers need to think more deeply about what truly motivates customers to have a relationship with a brand. Do customers buy Prada simply because it is Prada, or is it Prada’s heritage of craftsmanship, innovation and simplicity which attracts them?

Alone, the presence of a brand adds little to the mobile user experience. It is the values and expertise these brands embody which can be highly additive to the customer.

Vertu provides a great example of this at the very top-end of the mobile market. Here a brand was created from scratch, based not on the power of a name (although this has grown over time), but on the strength of its engineering prowess.

Frank Nuovo, formerly Chief Designer at Nokia and now founder and Creative Director of Vertu also spoke at the Handset Fashion Congress and participated on the panel I was chairing. He explained that his long-term ambition as a designer was to create the most beautiful and perfect product – not just in mobile, but in any industry. This vision is embodied in Vertu, a venture which Nuovo admitted simply didn’t add up as a business model when he first looked at it. “It shouldn’t have been possible to do what we have done,” he said.

Nuovo and his team scoured the world for craftsmen who could create the components Vertu needed in materials like titanium, sapphire crystal, real leather, gold and platinum. They found expertise from traditional centres of craft in places like Italy and England, introducing new manufacturing techniques to the mobile business from other industries. Nuovo cites horology, with its incredibly detailed and minute mechanisms, as a big influence on his design approach.

Vertu quarter turn locking mechanism

Vertu’s quarter turn locking mechanism took over 2 years to develop and is one of many detail areas where the company concentrates on creating value

Vertu built a new factory facility in England, where customers could come and watch the craftsman at work on their handsets. The company also developed its own network of retail centres to ensure the products were presented in the right environment.

This approach has been extended to services and software: early on, Vertu introduced a concierge service reflecting the importance of the mobile phone as an organising tool in the user’s lifestyle. It has since added software innovations such as ‘Vertu Fortress’, an application which backs up the user’s data over-the-air to servers located in a military-grade bunker.

Vertu Fortress
The Vertu experience extends beyond high quality hardware and incorporates additional services and applications, like its ‘Fortress’ back-up

It may be limited to the high-end of the mobile market, but Vertu is a great example of two very important techniques which are applicable at all levels: total experience planning and customer involvement. The Vertu experience extends across the hardware, software, services and retail environment. At the same time, it involves its customers directly in the product development process, producing customised handsets and allowing customers to actually see how their device is built.

These principles may manifest themselves in different ways at different levels of the pricing scale, but the fundamentals remain the same. A successful manufacturer must be able to see its products in the wider context of a user’s lifestyle and must structure its development process to respond quickly to the needs of individual customers.

Perhaps this is indicative of manufacturers following ‘fashion’ or becoming ‘style-orientated’, or perhaps it is just good user experience practice?

We will be exploring this topic in detail at the MEX conference in London on 27th – 28th May 2008. We have brought together an ‘all star’ team comprising 8 of the industry’s most creative thinkers from across industrial, interaction and interface design. Working in small workshop groups, these experts will lead conference delegates through a live design exercise around the theme of MEX Manifesto #4: ‘Fashion is a stronger motivator than functionality‘.

It is a topic which was designed to provoke debate and we haven’t been disappointed. Since we published the 2008 MEX Manifesto at the end of last year, we have had a wide range of responses, from outrage to agreement.

My personal view is that this Manifesto subject should be focused on understanding the difference between what’s important to users and what currently drives the mobile industry. As we can see from Nokia’s new 6600 release, companies are slowly starting to realise the word ‘beauty’ can communicate much more about an experience than a three letter acronym devised by an engineering committee.

I would also like to see much wider discussion of how this sensitivity to user motivations and emotions can be extended beyond the physical form factor of the handset. Most ‘fashion phone’ projects to-date have been focused on hardware developments, but the experience will only be complete once this approach is carried through into the software UI, applications and services.

The 8 design leaders participating at MEX bring diverse views of their own. Fabio Sergio, Creative Director at Frog Design and one of the MEX workshop leaders, believes: “It is no longer sufficient to create functional, emotionally engaging, beautiful products, it is becoming essential to have them resonate with people’s value systems.”

Andrea Rosengren, Interaction Designer at Ocean Obseravtions and another of our speakers, says: “Colours, shapes and textures are great when it comes to giving people that ‘must have’ feeling. But I think there is a lot more to learn about motivators from the fashion industry…could the fact that the quality of haute couture pieces is judged by the seams on the inside tell us something about the importance of a carefully designed ‘inside’ even in a mobile phone? I truly wish that we’ve now seen the last phones with great industrial design hiding a hopeless GUI that gives the whole phone a low-brow impression!”

I expect network operators to play a significant role in driving the extension of fashion trends deeper into the mobile experience. They have a vested interest in seeing the areas of value creation extend beyond the hardware. Aside from keeping their customers supplied with the latest shiny kit, there’s not much incentive for operators to ship expensive fashion phones if they don’t create additional service revenues. That will require an integrated approach across cosmetic and functional elements.

Chris Liu, Managing Director of Fjord and another of the MEX design leaders, explains: “As the phone business matures, a significant part of it will resemble similarities to the fashion business, but with a twist where technology adds spice and passion to our desires and fuel for the rationale.”

I believe brands with an authentic history of design innovation, and a willingness to invest in applying those traditions in the mobile industry, will be the most successful in this space. Why shouldn’t brands be more than just a marketing tool? Why shouldn’t companies from industries like biking, sailing and other precision engineering businesses actually be a catalyst for introducing new technology into the mobile industry? To-date, the technology transfer in the so-called ‘fashion phone’ business has been a one way process slanted very much in favour of the mobile industry. That can and should change.

I hope you’ll join us at the MEX conference in London on 27th – 28th May as we explore this topic. Leading executives and creative thinkers from across the value chain will be participating. As with all MEX sessions, everyone in attendence will play a role in crafting a collaborative response to the Manifesto statement. The workshop leaders include:

MEX is all about tapping into the unique knowledge of the 100 bright and inspiring people who come from all over the world to take part. At the end of the event, everyone who attends receives a copy of the MEX 2008 report, summarising all of these ideas (last year this ran to over 200 pages of notes, illustrations and diagrams).

You can register on-line at Delegate places are priced at GBP 1499 (+ VAT @ 17.5% if applicable). The conference sells out in advance each year, so I recommend early booking to ensure your place.

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    Zusch Login » Blog Archive » Beauty and the Beast

    […] We see similar conflicts on the web. On early web sites, functionality was poor because some graphic design techniques that were perfectly functional for print weren’t functional on computers. Usability came along to inject functional design, but at a price of bland appearances in some eyes. We see conflicts between aesthetics and function increasingly in desktop systems too. I’ve personally disassembled Microsoft’s Vista for favoring good looks over usability. Apple is hardly immune to it, not on its web site, its Leopard OS, or its hardware. In general the design of consumer hardware frequently favors aesthetics over function, and in the mobile market, this tendency appears to be increasing. […]

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