Has Nokia put craziness behind it?: Inside the company's post-Windows design revolution

Has Nokia put craziness behind it?: Inside the company's post-Windows design revolution

Summary: Nokia used to be known for its wacky devices. Are its quirky days behind it? ZDNet caught up with two of its senior smartphone designers to find out — and discovered the rocky road to the birth of the Lumia 925.


For those smartphone manufacturers that use one of the top three biggest OSes — that's everyone , then — the only way to differentiate yourself is through hardware.

That's especially true for Nokia since it threw in its lot with Microsoft. While hardware has always been Nokia's strength, it is now even more crucial as it seeks to re-establish its position in a world of anonymous black slabs.

The 7280. Image: Nokia

Using Windows Phone means committing to certain things — three hard buttons (back, home and search) on the front of the device, for example — and then finding a way to stand out from the rest.

An end to craziness?

It's a shift from Nokia's old ways, where whacky, if not always successful, devices appeared, the 7280 lipstick phone, the S-shaped 7600 and the contortionist N93 among them. In the Microsoft era, it seems Nokia has lost the quirkier side of its hardware. Can the company's smartphone designers go crazy any more?

"The designers here have a lot of sense and experience," says Jonne Harju, senior smartphone designer at Nokia.  "They don't just come and say, I want a fully transparent for device for next year'. They might do sketches around them, but the realities are different.

"When we look to the future, what are the crazy ideas? What is feeling crazy now is feeling OK in three years' time."

The designers are aware now of the importance of design to the company's future. Niilo Alfthan, senior design manager of smartphones at Nokia, says: "Obviously in design as a field, you can do crazy stuff — we've done that, but the brief to us is very clear now — it's to bring us back on track."

As if the importance of design needed labouring, designers are seated not far from those who study Nokia's bottom line, in Nokia's headquarters in Espoo, just outside the Finnish capital Helsinki. They have, apparently, one of the best coffee machines in the building (no mean feat in Nokia House — the coffee is both good and heart-startingly potent).

Many of the Helsinki team of designers, charged with developing a handful of Lumia devices a year, have over ten years' experience with the company, so they've seen the evolution of Nokia smartphones from their earliest Communicator days through the idiosyncrasies of Symbian to the pared-down Lumia era.

When the design team begin work on a new phone, rarely will they start with an entirely blank page — concept work has been done on what a phone's next generation should look like, or what features will be its selling points, technical studies are being worked on and there are blurry indications of the parts that will be available to them in, say, two years' time.

The designers have to think far ahead — they're already thinking about how smartphones will look in 2014 and onwards.

"We had a meeting with the software UX guys where they showed their thinking for 2014 and 2015 — now that they have ideas, can we implement it and work out what does it mean for the physical object. We are complementing it," Harju says.

Nokia now introduces hardware features designed to work with specific Microsoft software features — for example, the curved glass bevel found on Lumias was added with how it feels to perform Windows Phone swipe gestures in mind.

Design family

In recent years, there have been efforts to make Nokia's design language more coherent across its various device families: the Windows Phone-powered Lumias, the Asha featurephone line and the assortment of more low-end devices that follow on down the stack. 

"Even though they look different, there's a Nokianess to them — sometimes it's difficult to say what it is, but the Nokianess is always there" -- Jonne Harju

The Helsinki-based Lumia designers meet up with their Beijing-based Asha counterparts monthly to share their learnings, and elements used in the Lumias can, over time, appear on their lower-end Asha cousins. Material development in particular is an area of particular cooperation — the Lumia team might do prototyping work on a new polymer and pass their findings onto the Asha team.

For the Lumia and Asha ranges, Harju says, "the industrial design itself, the architecture, how it looks inside, it's different — there's different R&D, and different price points. But overall how it looks, how we handle design in Asha and Lumia, it's very similar. They look like family. It feels like they are part of the same DNA."

But the designers are not there to make clones, Harju says.

"We don't have copies of devices, they all have characters, they have something that people can choose, so they can pick up what fits them best. And even though they look different, there's a Nokianess to them — sometimes it's difficult to say what it is, but the Nokianess is always there," he says.

"When we design Lumia products we are approaching them in a very rational manner to ensure that we create the absolutely best product out of the tools we have but the true Nokianess comes from the dash of irrationality which then makes the product human to us.

"This approach has been our guiding principle ever since the Nokia N9 where the otherwise extruded and rational look and feel of the product has that slightly puffed back. It's like somebody breathed air in it, making it alive. In Lumia 925 this principle is coming through in the way we designed the aluminium frame, giving the otherwise cold material softness to feel more human in your hand."

The Microsoft deal signalled not only an era of design unification, but also helped tighten up release schedules — when both hardware and software made inhouse, a slip in Symbian schedules would cause knock-on disruption in hardware.

With Windows Phone on a more regular release schedule, its latest all-purpose flagship device, the Lumia 925, was one the faster devices Nokia's Lumia designers have worked on — a year from when the programme began to when the devices made it into consumers' hands.

The evolution of the 925

It may have been fast, but that doesn't mean it was easy. Normally Nokia designers will have a functioning prototype of a phone before the decision is made on whether to schedule the device for release.

And when the designers decided to introduce metal elements into the 925's casing, they "tripled their challenges", Alfthan says. "The product was like a living animal after that."

While there was considerable enthusiasm for a metal case and some "pre-work" had been done on how its inclusion could impact the antenna, when the designers seriously began to take stock of what its inclusion would mean for the product, it was a "sobering moment".

"It was a big learning process and a rollercoaster ride," he says.

While the company has experience in all the elements that go into a metal antenna — Nokia had made phones with metal casings before, including the steel  6700 — the 925 was still a departure for the company: Nokia had never tried to put an antenna into the metal itself before.

The 925's metal rim
The 925's metal rim. Image: CNET

The phone would need to combine a metal frame and polycarbonate back, while avoiding the "death grip" that can cripple a phone's reception when users actually put their hands on it.

Around last October, after the company had already slated the 925 for launch, the metal casing caused a few headaches.

"We got some antenna results and it wasn't working at all and we'd already decided we were going to produce this. Suddenly, it's not working. To me it was superscary, I was like, 'oh my, what are we going to do?' That antenna problem can easily rip the whole concept apart."

When kinks appear in the design process, the team can ask for help from the research and development staff.  "We go to R&D and it's more of a therapy session — we say 'man, we have issues', then they start helping you out — 'don't worry, I think we can fix it this way'," Alfthan says.

Getting the splits in the aluminium frame just so turned out to be in key to producing a functioning metal antenna.

"The grade of the plastic that we were using for that little split, it has a certain value that we needed to look at and make sure that it is communicated right in the antenna simulations. There's a lot of minute things that, as a designer, you don't really need to think about with a plastic phone because it's RF-transparent by nature."

The shape of the device and its geometry were similar to the designers' initial vision, and much of the tinkering and finetuning around the device went on that all important metal rim, and trying to get the yield of the parts — the percentage of the components are high enough quality — up to the right level to make it cost-effective to use them.

From prototype to production

When those parts arrive can be one of the favourite moments for the design crew. While prototypes and non-functioning models will be created before the production version is made, it's only when the final parts arrive that the designers get a sense of how it will really look and feel in the hand.

"When you start to see real parts, that a beautiful moment. Even if there's a problem, you start to go 'whoa'," Harju says. "There's always surprises — not all positive surprises, sometimes! It's almost like a baby born — it's like, wow, it's real — even if it's a simple part, like a cover. Then from that day on, we start to improve and improve, finetune all the details and then it's in the shop."

With the phone's display in front of them, they can know how big the device will be, for example, or with a camera module, begin to get an idea of how thick the device will be, and so how much play they have fitting the rest of the components in.

Prototypes are followed by factory builds, an important milestone on the way to the phone's release. "It's almost like a marathon you just started," Harju says. "You're not even half way, it's the first 10km — and you have 30km to run. You have a nice feeling, but you know it's going to be long process to get it done."

Between the build and the device entering production, the designers can be tempted to tinker with it — maybe a colour tone here or a component shift there — before the final whistle is blown.

"Sometimes you want to improve, improve, improve all the time. We tend to try the impossible — you can't get everything right on the first build."

Not all of the technologies that the designers want to include will eventually make it into a device, however. In the 925's case, a bigger display was on the drawing board but was pulled after it was found to be monkeying with the all-important antenna.

"We were trying an idea where we were trying to fit a bigger display and in that point in time, we were thinking let's make a bigger display... then we realised it did not help because of the antenna — there was interference," Alfthan says.

And while some variants of phones never make it to release, their features may live on. The prototypes are archived for posterity and sometimes later revisited — meaning occasionally a feature that didn't make it in to one device can be reused on its second generation.

It's not uncommon for features to get a second life, whether they're cherry-picked from an old phone or they just weren't ready in time for a device's release schedule.

"We are always, always stretching the limits," Harju says. "We know sometimes it's very, very tight for a technology to be mature enough in the timeframe [for it to be included in a device], but we think 'let's try to do it', because then if you start something it can be moved to the next device — at least we've started something. If you don't start some new innovation, you don't necessarily get the result later on."

Topics: Hardware, Mobility, Nokia, Smartphones, Windows Phone

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  • Marvelous phrasing... or a typo.

    "...and then finding a way to stand out with the rest."

    By definition "stand out" is not "with the rest". Or did you mean "... stand out in front of the rest"?
  • Nokia? Craziness? You sure?

    I find the title and the point of this article arrogant an misinformed. Nokia was LEADING the cell phone market long before Apple and Samsung knew about it. That's why it could allow itself to make some extravagant models, along with the many successful phones that made it No 1 in the mid-2000s. First smartphones were actually made by Nokia - the venerable Communicator family. What this author is talking about is absolutely irrelevant. In the last couple of years Nokia lost its pace, not because it produced 'crazy' phones, but rather because it did not.
    What they prepare for the market today is crazy: a smartphone with 41MP camera! And that crazy thing is expected to mark the return of Nokia to the big game.
  • Crazy?

    I'd give anything to have the "crazy" design of the Nokia 6822:

    Best keyboard ever, IMO. Pair it with WP8, and there wouldn't be ANYTHING left of Blackberry in 3 months.
    Ira Seigel
    • More Crazy

      Or the E70:
      Ira Seigel
    • I had that phone, but not sure I follow you...

      That was my favorite phone for years (I even went through a few batteries, as back then most of us didn't plan on throwing out our phone when the battery life started dropping), but by today's standards (and especially with an OS like Windows Phone 8), the screen would be way too small to be useful, in my opinion. How would you redesign it to have a larger screen and still utilize the compact fold-out keyboard? There are smartphones with slide-out keyboards, but they make the phone much thicker and most people seem to prefer the slimmer touchscreen phones. There is something about a physical keyboard that I still prefer, but apparently I don't prefer it enough over the thinner, lighter, larger-screened keyboardless smartphones of today, because I've opted for one of them.

      So, I would be interested to hear your thoughts.
      • Foldout keyboard but with a bigger screen

        I think the larger screen could be incorporated into this design. Sure, the 2 halves of the keyboard would have a further separation, but that wouldn't matter if each thumb is typing on each half. Whether the actual size of each half of the keyboard would need to be scaled larger - in proportion with the screen - I'm not sure. I don't think so, although a slightly bigger keyboard wouldn't hurt or be difficult to engineer.

        Glad to hear there's someone else out there who used these phones. Was it the E70 or the 6822?

        I think you HAD to opt for one of the keyboardless phones today. There's hardly any choices with QWERTY that use the 4G systems of the carriers nowadays.
        Ira Seigel
    • Thickness not an issue - plus Galaxy Note size would be OK too

      Agree totally - if the most-used buttons hadn't worn out ( and my eyes aged too much for the small screen ) I'd still be using it today. My old hands NEED a keyboard to be efficiently productive.
      Similar features on a "Galaxy Note-sized form" with the Lumia1020 capabilities would be "perfect for the over-50" age group.
  • Being Nokia no longer

    Designs hardware. The title should read "Can Foxconn's designs Save Nokia"
    Troll Hunter J
    • Funny, I was reading a article headline saying

      "Can Foxconn's designs propell Apple forward"

      Now you're saying that they're designing for Nokia? That I haven't read anywhere.
      William Farrel
      • Apple still designs their hardware

        While Nokia has their stuff designed in China, and built in a sweatshop in India. That's a fact, and no made up lies will make your employer look any better. Just a FYI, you keep making the same spelling, and grammar errors under the three known screen names ( palmsolo, toddbottom, and willfarrel)
        Troll Hunter J
        • Two things:

          1: Nokia's Lumia line are designed in Espoo, not Asia.
          2: Palmsolo is Matthew Miller's pseudonym and is CLEARLY not ToddBottom or WillFarrell
          • Open your eyes

            It was a Foxconn engineer that made the claim. When the three of them make the same spelling/grammatical errors, it is reasonable to conclude, they are one in the same.
            Tink about the screen name structure, mind you, there are no coincidences.
            Matt Miller
            Todd Bottom
            Will Farrel
            Does that clear up the pattern? each first name is 4 letters with a double letter, and the last names are 6 letters with a double in the 3/4 position.
            Troll Hunter J
          • typo alert

            "Tink about the screen name structure, mind you, there are no coincidences."
            Should read
            "Think about the screen name structure, mind you, there are no coincidences."
            They need to upgrade the talkback software, to allow editing.
            Troll Hunter J
          • @Troll Hunter J

            I think bitcrazed is right about both the things.

            Why don't you check what is Matt Miller's twitter handle? It won't be tough to find as he gives it at the end of his articles. Or are you accusing that Matt Miller is trolling for Windows frequently in the comments section? If that is the case, I guess it has to be defended by either of the three(if they are three). If you wish to say regarding the name, I am sure Lily Potter(Harry Potter's mother in the harry potter series) does fits the same category. Are you going to say JKR took Matt's pen name structure? Or in the same series, there is a Tom Riddle. Here also in the first name(Matt, Todd, Will), we can remove the fourth alphabet and it fits the character's name. Then I must concur JKR is definitely a fan of Matt then.

            Regarding the design, Foxconn ONLY manufactures things. They manufacture based on some design given. Or show me an article or link which says that Nokia has outsourced it's design process to any company.
          • Re: Foxconn ONLY manufactures things

            Are Nokia phones manufactured by Foxconn?
          • Just a FYI

            "Foxconn, using Taiwan as its design center and China as its main manufacturing base, already set up
            hubs and service centers in Asia, Europe, and major cities of U.S.A.This is aimed to provide instant
            support to customers and to support customer's needs for product development. This also helps to
            strengthen the relationship with customers. "
            Troll Hunter J
          • That's just

      • It would seem to mean that

        Nokia neither designs phones, makes phones, OR writes software for them.

        So just what does Nokia do?
        • Nokia just distributes

          Phones designed in China, made in India, with a foreign OS. I only say Foreign, because the exact origin of Windows Phone 8 OS Phone Edition is unclear. We all know the support comes from India, but the actual coding could be from several countries.
          Troll Hunter J
          • FYI, part of iOS is also designed and developed in India

            and the phones are built in China. Apple also employs lot of engineers from India and they work in both Cupertino and India like Microsoft, Google and other major firms do. Nokia designs its phone and builds some of its phones are in India. If you have proof otherwise please show it. Also please drop Hunter from your handle and that suits you well.
            Ram U