Smartphones and the Anti-ergonomic (R)evolution

If God had meant for cell phones to be thin and flat, He would have given us Lego hands.

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Adapted by author from image courtesy

I need to preface this Darwinian screed by reminding readers that I love using the Nokia N9 smartphone.  Forget ecosystem wars.  Forget popularity contests.  This device is the closest any company has gotten to my dream of a handheld computing device that can connect to cellular infrastructure during those rare moments when I feel the urge.  And it’s a beauty. while I really admire its sleek, unibody look from an aesthetic perspective, my practical side sometimes sneers.  After all, this is the device that recently went flying out of my hand and down to a concrete driveway, largely because I had dared remove it from its protective case.  The flat shape and smooth material that look so sexy also turn the device into a perfect projectile.  To Nokia’s credit, in my situation the damage is almost imperceptible; not so for my youngest son’s unfortunate Nexus One and S phones.

I can’t completely fault Nokia for going the narrow route with its design practices; ever since Apple convinced the world that cell phones needed to become skinny button-free slabs, that’s the goal high-end manufacturers now select by default.

This anorexic design philosophy not only conflicts with practical aspects such as power (by limiting battery size), it gets in the way of good ergonomics, too.  The human hand, after all, isn’t really flat.  Not normally anyway. And sure enough, phones of the past, particularly for home use, employed full-bodied curves that just felt right.

Unfortunately, you can’t pocket the typical home phone comfortably, so compromises are necessary.  And for whatever reason, phones of any size hung on belt clips have never quite caught on as a fashion accessory– so into the pocket they usually go.  Testicles, beware!

Now, when it comes to Nokia I avoid speculation so as not to run afoul of its Developer Champion program.  So what I’m about to say next has nothing to do with device rumor-mongering but rather, general human nature.  That is: when presented with an image of what may or may not be an upcoming Nokia phone, denizens of the internet have largely denounced it as ugly.  This is where the designer and device nut sides of my personality ask: really???

Because I have to tell you, I find this bright, curvaceous thing sexy.  It isn’t flat and formless.  It dares to sweep and swoop and, by God, BULGE.  To top it off, the bulgy bit holds within its ample bosom a point-and-shoot-industry-killing camera– IF rumor is true.  Much like the Nokia PureView 808, which has generated some pretty polarized discussion of its own.  But I like it.

I look at flashy, full-figured devices like these and I think beach sports.  Hang-gliding.  Fun in the sun.  And definitely designed for the human hand.

At least they don’t force you to side-talk.

So while I won’t weigh in on the likelihood that Nokia will actually build this beauty, I do want to take the general population to task for succumbing to flat Earth brainwashing.  Do we really expect our electronics to fight for space in increasingly cramped, flat quarters?  Is a race toward paper thinness truly what we’re rooting for?  And are we actually going to turn down true convergence devices simply because the best-of-breed will pack on a few more millimeters than Steve Jobs’ (rest his soul) go/no-go gauge would allow?

Look, I’m not advocating a return to mobile bricks.  They weren’t ergonomic, either.  But there has to be a middle ground between thick and thin.  And surely there are others who, like me, prefer some degree of heft to their devices.

If nothing else, you never know when you might need to throw one at something.

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Editor-in-Chief. Making tech accessible since the Jurassic. Personal ramblings at Follow @texrat on Twitter.

Latest posts by Randall "texrat" Arnold (see all)

  • JohnatNokia

    Good read, Randall. In this one-size-does-not-fit-all world, I’ve found my Nokia 800 fits me like a glove.

    • Randall Arnold

       Thanks for taking the time to visit, John!

  • Antoine RJ Wright

    There are so few real good variations on the slab/brick – since the beginning of computing, or one can argue the 10 commandments and code of Harmubi (sp?). The Nokia WP rumor does look like a good design, if no nothing but the curves.

    I debate often if the N9 should have been what I went for instead for the N8; design is part of the reason.

    • Randall Arnold

      As a designer and design-lover I’m really frustrated by the convergence toward a single design paradigm.  Fortunately Nokia for one is bucking it, but I fear that herd mentality could sink their efforts.

      So few large companies are willing to explore niches these days… can’t say that I blame them, though.  Maybe those are the spaces for smaller, even crowdsourcing manufacturers?  The fate of the KDE/Mer Vivaldi project might become an indicator…

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