New Phones Draw Designers Into Arms Race

The recent “Keynotes” and “Special Events” of mobile hardware manufacturers made it clear – we are no longer bound by technical limitations of mobile devices. For the first time in history, our phones are as potent as our laptops which puts application designers and developers into a precarious position.

App designers are now involuntarily participating in a frantic hardware race.

The history of mobile experience is infused with conflict and drama. Ever since cell phones started gaining traction, there were those willing to tame the wave and turn it into their favor. The reason why Steve Jobs didn’t want Apple to make a phone and instead, went back and forth with a stillborn Rokr project because of the carriers’ weight in the phone hardware industry.

Fair enough, if you are entering the carriers’ backyard, play by their rules. Apple resisted for a reason. There are worse examples, however. Pantech was a mobile hardware startup from South Korea that had risen to fame in a heartbeat and faded likewise. In 2012 the company was making the second best handset in Asia. In 2014 it declared bankruptcy. Experts see legacy leadership and inability to satisfy customer needs in the age of rapid technological development as the main reasons for this demise.

In the US, Pantech was known as a supplier of carrier-exclusive phones that got jettisoned the moment smartphone manufacturers won over the carriers.

Well, times have changed. Though the carriers are still legit players in the game, now they do not dictate the rules, but abide with them. The iPhone they wanted to change as they see fit, they now help buy.

New Phones Draw Designers Into Arms Race | Shakuro

Image credit: Jack Royle

What made them adjust and become content with a secondary role? Progress did. People on the first iPhone team went all the way to revolutionize the world of tech. And they did it again. And again. It’s their effort and sacrifice that laid the bedrock of today’s Apple sham.

Evolution of the app

Mobile apps as we know them weren’t even called “applications”. They were “features” because they used to only be featured on very specific devices. In the time of the first iPhone creation, app design came in hand with the phone design itself and it made no sense to do those things separately as they could not have existed without each other.

Eventually, it all came down to DPIs, ports, and finishes giving full rein to hardware manufacturers and putting carriers on the back foot and turning mobile software developers into chasers.


Early mobile development used wooden phone prototypes to figure out the icon sizes optimal for the touch input.

What industrial and software designers were working on together was a narrative of this new weird experience they were building for us.

The story that they managed to come up with different on so many levels. The touch interaction patterns seemed unnatural even to the highest executives within the industry. Steve Ballmer laughed about iPhone being ‘not a good email machine’ because it didn’t have a physical keyboard. He had all the right to say so and he was not the only one.

In the early days of touch, most design decisions came from opinions, rumor, assumptions, and anecdotal evidence. In order to have a first-hand knowledge of how touch interactions work, you had to have access to the hardware production.

New Phones Draw Designers Into Arms Race | Shakuro

Image credit: Jack Royle

The stylus logic was still quite strong being not a far cry from the computer pointing interaction system which people used for decades. However, there was always the urge to expand the experience. Can you use two styluses? How about a finger? Multitouch is the only form of touch that made sense.

The touch we are using today came about as the result of collaboration between engineers and early UX designers who dreamed about turning all our flat surfaces we use every day into the potential interaction screens with some sort of software.    


Interface designs used to be parts of the phones and existed in a device-specific environment. Small screen resolutions and low pixel density obliged designers to use texts and lists as main UI elements. Thicker pixel-packed displays made it possible to use graphics and icons as the main elements. Being a great solution for developers, it was the time when mobile UX had to come into play.

Many of the custom layout principles and icon designs conveying a certain logic were very subjective. Which considering the number of device manufacturers and models becoming available, was not a good thing.

The ambiguous diversity of early mobile UI designs was fascinating but massively impractical.

This resulted in people getting used to owning a specific device and having trouble switching to a new one. On one hand, we had authentic phone-specific designs, on the other, it was frustrating to constantly play catch-up with your own phone.

New Phones Draw Designers Into Arms Race | Shakuro

Image credit: Jack Royle

The demand for a ubiquitous experience was there and as soon as handset manufacturers realized how much they depend on the actual operating systems and software, they began contributing to design. The first developer guidelines for iPhone and Android were released in 2007. For the manufacturers that meant they were now opening their design principles for people to play with. Ultimately, you can’t design every app for your phone yourself.

Mobile design guidelines tamed the wild layouts and created a cultural phenomenon of mobile UIs.         


As smartphone chips kept becoming more and more potent, the handsets kept penetrating our lives and taking over the tasks. That reflected in the construction of the phones – they had to become lighter, thinner, more durable, and more attractive so that people wouldn’t want to let go of them for too long.

Processors are the most underrated parts of new phones. They might not be as sexy as new screens and cameras but it’s them make new things happen to the phones. Since recently, innovation in mobile is only perceived as the development of artificial intelligence, machine learning, AR, and VR. Powerful chips are capable of processing thousands of images per minute which results in better object recognition and real-time video processing.

Designers will be able to finally unleash their vision of augmented reality control for casual use.

At first, this will most likely be the Wild West of ideas and implementation up until the point we realize what works best.

New Phones Draw Designers Into Arms Race | Shakuro

Image credit: Jack Royle

Great divide

It was all fine until we hit the imbalance period. Commerce had a lot to deal with this as it became the natural progression of things when the value of the smartphone became obvious. First, the skeuomorphic design was a signature style of buttonless mobile UIs. To compensate for the lack of tactile experience and make it more familiar, designers stuck with realistic interface elements. The styles of the phones attributed to that style as well.

However, further development dictated more flexibility and due to the variety of screen resolutions and sizes could not deal with the heaviness and cluttering of interfaces. This pushed the industry to flat design which morphed into a material design.

Responsiveness and adaptiveness became the attributes of digital design and this is where designers lost control.

Before the abundance of devices, we existed in somewhat clear design paradigm. We had desktop and laptop designs and we had phones with screens mostly fitting the range of 3.5 to 4.5 inches with 500-ish pixels per inch. Design-wise this meant creating solutions that could effectively exist within those ranges but still be meaningfully adapted.

Now there are about 80 most popular devices all with different parameters. Today we have to evaluate our focus demographic and choose the top priority media to deliver our mobile/web apps to. This approach is flawed with a certain percentage of discrepancies available. We’ve all felt it when the app does not feel like it belongs on a certain device. This is designers being forced to saw out a reel on a fiddle.

The next big thing that happened was the advent of unorthodox screen form factors. The iPhone X family, of course, being the most prominent of them. So now it’s 80 screen sizes with all sorts of weird notches and only a resemblance of a traditional rectangle? Yes, but who counts. We started paying zero attention to previous models and only using the latest models to frame our design concepts into.

Meanwhile, it has been 1,441 days since the Mac Mini was last updated on October 16, 2014.

If we want to, we can even come up with designs for the phone models that have not yet been released since the rumor mills are leaking things with almost a 100% accuracy. This weird state of things let loose the device manufacturers and turned designers into advocates of whatever they invent. It is no longer in the carpeted windowless rooms packed with engineers and software designers working together on a new phone. It’s like “let’s build a new crazy (expensive) phone and the designs will follow.

They did follow. But the designers wouldn’t be themselves if they hadn’t eventually turned the table around.    

The abundance of form factors resulted in the newest trend in application design where it seems like there is no design.

New Phones Draw Designers Into Arms Race | Shakuro

Image credit: Vitali Zahharov ?

This wireframe-like look is universal and allows designers to cover as many devices as possible without losing the initial idea and not leaving anything unattended. If it’s impossible to cater to form factor, let’s blow it off.

There are a couple billion apps out there and they all are supposed to give users value in some way or another. But that value is hidden behind a UI interaction. And the success of that interaction relies on something beyond the design.

A great opportunity had been found by the UXers in the chance to ignore everything but the job that an app has to do.

The power of early interfaces was in their oneness. The power of today’s best apps is in the familiar feel they have. In a brilliant article about uniformity, Yaz highlights the  following thought:

Sameness in interface design does not stifle creativity

We’ve approached the same idea from a different direction. Personally, I don’t get decision fatigue over something I am passionate about but I can be frustrated by the inability to process it all and stay in the loop. Like it’s hard to be upset over your favorite music but the amount of artists and new music released by them every day promises no successful closure. Or take video games. Or sporting events. They just keep coming and we have to deal with the fact that we won’t ever complete any of those lists.


New Phones Draw Designers Into Arms Race | Shakuro

Image credit: Jack Royle

Hardware manufacturers do what they can to drain our wallets as dry as they can until the industry changes once again. Luxurising the product is an obvious road to take but it is also the dead end road. By improving the computational power, manufacturers will eventually squeeze themselves out of the market, as the future of interactions is intangible.

Where do designers stand in this perspective? Hard to tell. But like many times before, they will find a way to reshape the reality and make good things count.

Written by Moses Kim
September 09, 2018