On every scale, from cottage industry to mass market, production starts with research. Johnstone begins by scouring the globe for team members who have the right skills and design sense to match a new user interface with a good-looking phone. “We were scratching our heads,” he says, remembering the first stages of putting it all together. The challenge was to find the best balance between affordable and savvy–inherent values in the market of Skype users. At the same time, the interface had to be easy enough for everyone to pick up quickly. “We have an idea of what customers want,” he explains, “and we have to be able to give the phone to someone who has never used Skype, and they need not only to understand it, but to like it.” The process kicks off with a three-month collaborative concept phase between HWL’s London office and AMOI in Shanghai, with two big questions in mind: How are they going to integrate Skype into the phone, and how would they make a phone that sells for around $100 feel high-quality and cosmopolitan?
Very aggressive” is how Johnstone describes the design schedule. They move quickly from a few rough sketches to a virtual 3-D model. AMOI and HWL take advantage of the time difference, working on a 24-hour cycle. “As we are finishing for the day, they are just arriving in the studio.” Communication is mostly visual, using the sketch-overlay method. Starting with hand sketches and moving into computer-aided design drawings, the companies exchange visual ideas by email. When verbiage is crucial, a liaison team from HWL in Hong Kong helps to eliminate any linguistic or cultural barriers. The teams have complementary skills. “They are more hard-core design and engineering,” Johnstone says of AMOI, “while we have a more industrial design take, evaluating the user interaction, look, and feel.” After this brief, intense phase and “very little sleep,” the phone comes together. The central feature is the Skype button, which enables users to see who is on their Skype network with a single tap and call them with a scroll and click. “It was very important to have a single idea,” says Johnstone. “We had to be brave about it.”
After the sketch-overlay and technical-design phases, AMOI provides a 3-D model. In the nine months that follow, the shape is subject to intensive prototyping before delivery to the factory line. “We have to test the user interface against the design we have,” says Johnstone. The team at HWL envisions every single motion a person might go through with their phone in excruciating detail–looking up a contact, sending a text message, making a call.
Two key innovations become reality. The first is an aluminum battery case that adheres magnetically to the back of the phone. “There was extra cost associated,” says Johnstone, “but it was certainly worth it.” The second is a multitasking-friendly function-flip button placed on the side of the phone next to the screen in “an ergonomically sensible place.” The button flips through open applications like pages in a magazine, letting you talk, chat, and text at the same time. “At about four months we get our first working phone,” says Johnstone, “and that’s exciting. We start sharing it around internally, letting users try it out. For us, this was a highlight because the response was so positive.”
When finishes are chosen and every-one has signed off, the factory line begins to churn. “We do a short production run of about 500 phones,” says Johnstone, “and use them heavily to gather feedback.” Choosing the finishes takes place in the AMOI paint studio, which has a massive digital wall of color swatches on painted plastic. “There are a hundred different shades and textures of black,” Johnstone says. “We went for a nice soft-touch black. The texture is crucial. It has to feel good in my hand.” The phone parts are painted in Shanghai and assembled by a pro-duction line in Xiamen on the outskirts of Shanghai. “Like with any mobile phone, there’s a ramp period in manufacturing,” says Johnstone. “You start off building a couple hundred a day, then it goes up to several thousand a day.” The first run has three color schemes: a Skype-colored blue and white, a youthful pink and white, and a more conservative black. “The iconic one is the white handset with blue highlights. When you see someone walking down the street with it, you say, Hey, that’s a Skypephone.”