Designing a fairer smartphone

25th September 2015
by Matthew Cockerill

Today's U.K. launch of Fairphone's second generation smartphone is the result of a long collaborative design process between Seymourpowell, Fairphone and their partners. Whilst first generation phone had limited opportunity to effect the physical product, the second generation phone (FP2) was a real opportunity to further explore the issues around fairness in consumer electronics in general and raise the bar on what's possible for smartphones in particular.

Making a fairer phone is complex, with the right answers often being ambiguous or debatable. However, design has the power to explore and address these complex questions allowing us to arrive at a pragmatic real world solution. It forces us to put a stake in the ground, to say what's possible right now and to explore what might be possible in the future.

Often in design briefs we are limited to creating desirability and delivering utility whilst ensuring that it can be manufactured as efficiently as possible. Though still important factors, Fairphone's ambitions were far greater than that. Their challenge to us - to help them create a phone with longevity in mind, to allow owners to keep their phones for longer, resulting in a real impact on material and energy consumption.  Another key focus was to create a hardware design that could facilitate storytelling so owners could become advocates for the brand and it's objectives of opening up the supply chain and changing the way electronics are made.

So we started at the end, with the user. Early on the team started talking about the 'Cafe moment', when the owner might meet friends, put their FP2 on the table prompting discussion and facilitating storytelling around the issues important to Fairphone. This became a key reference point throughout the process, to ensure the design delivered on this moment, and that the pressures of getting the phone to market with the inevitable compromises for development time and manufacturing didn't needlessly effect the owners final product experience.

The design process

As you can see from our video the design process involved a great deal of work considering the experience of opening up the phone and being able to understand, repair and talk about the issues the phone embodies. Starting with hand sketches and simple card models we simulated the product experience and then evolved the design and experience through 3D CAD, machined models, team discussions and development of graphic/colour/material/finish and finally into prototype sampling. As the design evolved we explored different ideas that would allow for durability, repairability and emotional longevity in the phone, ensuring the design could deliver a fairer phone and a product experience for our 'cafe moment'. No easy task when for most users the inside of a smart phone is a forbidden land that manufacturers actively discourage their owners from exploring. Whilst we looked to make the process of repair as understandable and simple as possible we didn't want the experience to feel ‘toy like’ or dumbed down. Rather like the Fairphone business itself we wanted to be open and transparent with the nature of how a phone is engineered.

The end result, a collaboration with Fairphone, their engineering and manufacturing partners, is a phone that is both more durable (it passes rigorous drop tests many competitors fail) and as simple to open and repair as changing the batteries of a child's toy. The screen can be replaced in under a minute with no tools and key components like the camera, headphone jack and micro usb connector are replaceable within a few minutes using a single screwdriver. A far cry from the tool box of spudgers, suction cups, tweezers and opening picks you need for the open heart surgery involved in most of todays smartphone repairs.

This isn't the end of course. Designing fairer products is a complex and interconnected process with contradictions at every turn, but this is a great step forward. We think this second generation Fairphone really raises the bar on what's possible with consumer electronics and in delivering on the 'cafe moment' experience we think it will fuel the conversation about the supply chain and ethics of consumer electronics.

This weekend we'll be running a workshop as part of Fairphone's pop up space at the London Design festival.  Why not come along and explore the possibilities for the next generation of phone and help us shape the future.