"He Wears Black and Has a Beard"

Disapointed Rant: Phone Cases

Toby Roworth

Jun 10, 2013

One of my, admittedly many, pet peeves is phone cases. They represent a massive failure in either designer, user or both. I'll elaborate later, but whilst I begin the story with my first phone, consider how stupid a nice expensive new phone looks once it's surrounded by a £5 piece of badly stitched leather.
Before that though, here's a link that gives an idea of why I might've looked at a lot of phones in my time. It also explains why I didn't illustrate this post.

The Nokia 3410

Back when I were a wee boy I got my first mobile phone - a Nokia 3410. To this day, this remains the best phone I've ever owned. As far as ruggedness goes it's up there with the SM58 (which actually does work as a hammer - I tried it a couple of weeks back). They'd survive significant drops, submersion, being thrown across the room (I used to do that just for fun).
That said, they weren't entirely indestructible A run in with a heavy trolley laden with a few hundred books cracked the screen. However, even then it just kept going! Granted, I could only use the top left quarter of the screen, but that was enough to see who I was calling, and read the important first few words of a text.
Eventually I had a replacement kindly donated to me, which kept going until I eventually bought a G1. This represented about 6 or 7 years of abuse in total, which caused some minor damage to one phone. A friend of mine finally gave his up a year or so ago after what must have been around a decade of use.
Whilst I'm on the subject, the phone also had a battery life of weeks, lovely tactile buttons and snake 2.
One of the key features to this marvel of engineering, I believe, was the interchangeable fascia. With some cunning voodoo the cover could be persuaded off, and could then be swapped for one with Pokemon or Winnie the Pooh on. I saw very few actually have their covers changed, but town centres were full of them on every market stand.
The relatively flexible fascia would have absorbed a lot of the impact from falls, pocket abuse and hammers, protecting the insides from harm, like a suit of armour. I have a feeling the insides were quite tough too though - a single PCB encased in plastic with resonably sizen components meant there was very little to go wrong. All the external components (microphone, vibrator etc) were rubber-mounted and connected to the PCB with pogo pins, or sprung legs.
But the real genius in the fascia was that it never felt like an extra component, added on to hide the phone's aesthetics - it was the phone's aesthetics, deigned as the surface the user sees, feels and smells.
Let's get back to modern phones.

Generic New Phone, kind of like the Samsung Galaxy S3

Most new phones have the same form factor: a massive screen with a carefully sculpted bezel, with a few buttons round the sides.
An industrial designer will have spent weeks getting those curves just right, ensuring they balance one another, embrace the really massive screen, and have sufficient thickness to not crack when held, yet are thin enough to keep the phone petite (if we ignore the ridiculously really massive screen).
They might have thought of something else - but the user didn't.
Nearly every time I see a phone in someone's hand it has a case round it. These cases are normally hideous, seemingly designed by a child who just received a "My First Injection Moulding" kit for christmas. For example, a friend (I'll call her Racoon, to make what's probably the most obscure reference to a thing ever) had a BlackBerry of some kind wrapped up in a transparent pink rubbery case. It took me a while to realise that the phone wasn't actually massive, it just had a few mm of case round it - I dared to take said case off once and discovered that underneath all that [lets say PVC] lay a really pretty phone, slim as you'd like with a nice sliding action on the keyboard.

So what went wrong?

  1. User buys phone for several hundred pounds (or at least obtains phone and appreciates replacement cost would be several hundred pounds)
  2. User decides to keep phone in pocket, or maybe handbag
  3. User looks at pocket and sees all the dangers that lie within
  4. User considers the danger that lies about a meter or so downwards from the main position of use
  5. User looks at how lovely and petite the phone's bezel is, and how exposed its screen is, and fears for it's life thinking "if that gets dropped the screen will smash" or "my keys will scratch the lovely paint job"
  6. User buys a case to protect the phone from their own paranoia. Inevitably, they will buy a case that has extra gimmicky features like a built in stand, but will buy one that's suitably cheap, which tends to mean badly designed.
There are two possible causes of this:

The Designer Went Wrong

Having seen many other people's expensive phones get cracked screens, and suffered a small crack myself, one could assume that the designer never considered where this phone was going to live:
"I shall craft a lovely looking device, and then just hope it never gets dropped - it will look nicer that way. Who shoves their phone in their back pocket anyway?"
So our designer cut corners are sacrificed ruggedness for aesthetics.
Of course there was a flaw there - the designer forgot that the user would come along and plonk an awful piece of rubber over the top of their beautifully styled phone. Whoops...
I'm not convinced this is the case though. My current phone (a Sony xperia Neo V) has suffered a lot of knocks, drops and tube passengers, and hardly shows it. My old phone, the G1, fell from a speeding bike, got thrown across the room by children and got some serious workshop abuse, and yet only ever received one, non-fatal, crack when it fell very fast into a marble flagstone. The worse phone breakage I've had was one of my 3410s, and I still maintain it's the most rugged phone ever - these things don't break as easily as people make out, even under the abuse I give them.

The User Misunderstood

Maybe the user was wrong to put a case on it. Maybe they didn't realise it was stronger than it looked. Maybe they didn't see in the spec that the screen has a Gorilla Glass 2 coating, so can go to space, get hit by an asteroid and come back (which, I assume, is how Corning market their special glass).
I have a feeling that this is the correct cause - designers tend to be least somewhat good at what they do, and will have considered their user's needs, such as pocketproofness.
However "The User Misunderstood" has a hidden meaning amongst designers - "The Designer Went Wrong". Whether they forgot to consider that phone needs to survive the user's pocket, or they forgot the user need to know it could survive their pocket, the designer screwed up.
So, to end:

A Plea To Phone Designers

Dear Phone Designers,
You do such a lovely job making our phones look pretty. Please try to do this in such a way that the user knows they won't fall apart, crack, break, combust unexpectedly and instantly die when dropped, so that they can leave the phone's aesthetic as designed, rather than smothering it in cheap tat.
Kind regards,
Toby, frustrated designer

Epilogue: Why that ending isn't as happy as I'd like

So there I was, all happy at my plea to designers, thanking them for their holistic approach to design, when I remembered this:

The iPad's Smart Cover. Despite being a fairly elegant piece of design, this, any many other similar covers designed by the company themselves say only one thing to me:
"We don't believe the product you spent several hundred pounds on can actually handle the conditions we expect you'll use it it - please give us some more money, and we'll fix that design flaw"
C'mon guys...