Designing the next Fairphone from the inside out

Long-Lasting Design

The process of developing a new product such as a smartphone is a complex one, and with our next Fairphone we wanted to stretch our design ambitions further to better align with our objectives of what a fairer phone could be.

To create a smartphone that matched our goals, we needed to create a completely original design. Designing a product from the inside out allowed us to consider the full life cycle of the phone, including addressing the drivers that push users to replace their devices like clockwork. It also gave us the opportunity to think about the social and environmental consequences of every design decision and focus on the concept of openness to encourage users to engage more deeply with their products.

In this blog post, I’ll discuss how we began developing the next Fairphone, and introduce you to the design and engineering partners who have helped us shape our vision into a fully-fledged product.

Design-Concepting

First original design concepting.
As the smartphone design cycle is a long one, we actually started working on the product back at the beginning of 2014. After we’d shipped our first edition Fairphone to customers, we were able to start crystallizing our thoughts on what we wanted to build in the future. We considered our own ambitions, as well as the input we received from our community and partners.

The first step was to define the product in broad terms, including functionality, form factors and more constraining aspects such as price points, volumes and target audiences. Based on the general picture of what we wanted to make, we started exploring the available building blocks that we could potentially use to create the next Fairphone. There were a few key elements that constrained how we could develop the phone, most notably the platform.

The importance of selecting the right platform

The platform selection was a significant step, as it determined quite a few elements of the overall design. In simplified terms, you can think of the platform as the foundation and engine on which the entire phone is built. The platform contains the Application Processor — the big system-on-chip (SOC) that includes the processors that run the main operating system, the multimedia processors and the peripheral controllers such as the cameras, display and USB ports. It also contains the modem, which includes the baseband processor, the radio transceivers, radio front-end and the modem software. In addition, the power management chips, wireless connectivity chips, Audio Codecs and many other essential elements are located within the platform.

When looking for the right platform vendor, we needed to consider our technical requirements. For instance, in order to make a competitive device, it was essential to have proven LTE (4G) capability and ensure that the modem was mature and pre-certified to meet the standards and requirements of various operators. We also needed to be sure that the platform was already integrated with the peripherals (camera, display, etc) that we wanted to use, to avoid the costly, time-consuming process of integrating new devices in a platform.

Taking our objectives for fairness into account, one important point was to look into how we would be able to develop and maintain software on our specific selected platform.

We wanted to know how much transparency we could expect from the vendor and if we would be able to make the development kits available to third parties in order to enable them to port various operating systems to our hardware platform.

Finally, these platforms are complex and require lots of support and maintenance from the vendors, and not every engineering design house or original design manufacturer (ODM) has access to all of the platforms. Therefore, it was important to work with a manufacturer that already had experience with the platform that we were going to be using. This was one of the key technical criteria that we looked at when selecting our new manufacturing partner, Hi-P.

Choosing our platform vendor

With all these requirements in mind, we were ready to choose our platform vendor. The complexity in building platforms in recent years has meant that the amount of R&D investments required to develop and maintain competitive products has gone through the roof, and only a few players who manage to secure enough volume through some significant sockets have been able to thrive. As a consequence, many companies have now exited the mobile semiconductor market. This evolution left us with very few vendors that could supply a mature platform on which we could design the next Fairphone. The available options were essentially Qualcomm, Mediatek, Intel, Samsung and Nvidia, who announced last week that they were exiting this market as well.

After lots of conversations about features, road maps, costs and support regarding the potential platform vendors, we decided to work with Qualcomm for our next product. Qualcomm’s platform met all of our technical requirements, and their participation in the Code Aurora Forum demonstrated that they were ahead of the pack in terms of transparency. In addition, our manufacturing partner had the necessary experience working with this platform.

Design-Technical

Designers busy fitting the guts of a phone in a user-appealing form-factor.

A different approach to product design

The next step on the path to creating our new phone focused on industrial design and engineering. One of the key challenges for our partners was that we were taking a different approach to product design. Usually a product gets specified and then the industrial designers create a wonderful concept that the engineering team is then tasked with achieving, often by cramming lots of things inside the phone and getting it to work.

We are taking the reverse approach, designing our product from the inside out.

Designing from the inside out means balancing a complex set of goals including sustainability, aesthetics, ease-of-use and functionality while keeping at the forefront our design principles and storytelling ambitions.

With this in mind, we carried out the engineering and mechanical design while developing the industrial design.

We wanted to really rethink the way smartphones are designed and built with the aim of designing a lasting product. We also wanted our consumers to feel a stronger connection to the final product and gain more ownership. Finally, we wanted to think about the social and environmental consequences of every design decision that goes into the engineering of the product.

To help us achieve all these objectives, we brought in Hu-Do, a technology consultancy focused on the creation of leading-edge consumer electronics. They specialize in tackling difficult integration challenges and have completed projects with a number of other mobile phone brands in the past.

We tasked Hu-Do with taking a fresh approach that incorporated our ideas for longevity, ownership and fairness, as well as addressing all the other elements required for a competitive smartphone design, including:

  • Meeting key Industrial Design requirements in terms of product size, weight and cost, in collaboration with our design partner.
  • Ensuring that the product will have great performance, especially in terms of radio (i.e. RF) capabilities.
  • Ensure great product longevity, enabling it to survive the shock, vibration and thermal stress that we subject our phones to.
  • Making sure that we are compliant with the regulatory requirements, including electromagnetic performance (i.e EMI/EMC).

With the engineers at Hu-Do we have been working on the co-specification of the product, working out an architecture that will reflect our ambitions and driving the development of the product all the way to the detailed design stage. We then interlocked with the engineers at Hi-P who are doing the detailed development work, the prototyping and getting the product certified and manufacturable.

Design-pcb

Zooming in on the PCB.

Design that matches our engineering ambitions

In parallel to working with Hu-Do, we needed to take the crucial step of getting a design that communicated the Fairphone ethos and product story. As we wanted to expand the usual design thought process, we teamed up with design and innovation consultancy Seymourpowell. This London-based agency has extensive experience in sustainable, environmentally conscious design, and had advised Fairphone when we were still in our infancy during our time at Bethnal Green Ventures.

Our unconventional approach required ongoing collaboration with the engineering team. The designers at Seymourpowell not only had to understand the essence of what Fairphone is all about but also mold it into the product that the engineers were working on. This meant defining the product into a successful sensory experience for users, for example researching and implementing colors and materials, as well as all the cosmetic elements of the product.

Seymourpowell’s responsibilities went well beyond the product’s appearance. Because we wanted users to understand their phones better, the designers also needed to consider the full user experience when opening up the product and maintaining it.

Specifically, Seymourpowell factored the user experience into the product design, so as to follow Fairphone’s ambitions to give users a feeling of ownership and encouragement to open up their phones.

Since repairability is a top design goal, they also consulted on how to give instructions to users on making phone maintenance and repair more accessible.

Our path to developing the next Fairphone has created plenty of interesting challenges, and has required an unprecedented level of collaboration between our engineering, design and manufacturing partners. But the end result will bring us one step closer to executing Fairphone’s product development philosophy to the fullest. By approaching our design from the inside out, we’ve made significant progress in addressing how long phones last, how people relate to them, and the product’s entire life cycle. Without revealing any more specifics, I hope you’ll be as excited as we are when you finally see our next phone.

In future blog posts, we’ll explore the analysis and rationale behind specific design choices as we start revealing more details about the next Fairphone.

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