The job of a designer is to be a psychologist [Podcast interview]


Belkin's design director Oliver Seil says designers are basically psychologists.
Belkin's design director Oliver Seil says designers are basically psychologists.
Photo: Oliver Seil/Belkin

In the last decade or so, lots of companies have gotten design religion. Design has been brought in-house, where it can shape products from the very get-go. There’s an obvious source for this idea — Apple.

This week on the Kahney’s Korner podcast, I talked to Oliver Seil, senior design director of Belkin International’s Innovation Design Group. We discussed Belkin’s products and design process; the surprising complexity of USB cables (and why they cost so much); and why Apple has had such an enormous influence on design and manufacturing.

You can listen to the podcast or read a full transcript of the interview below. (Or dive into the show notes.)

Apple does a fantastic job pushing technology forward

Leander: Industrial design is something that a lot of manufacturers use to outsource. Companies will design a product and then contract with a firm of outside design consultants to slap a good looking skin on it and hope for the best. But in the last decade or so lots of companies have gotten design religion. Design has bring brought in-house where it can shape products from the very get-go. There’s another source of this idea, Apple. This week we talk to Oliver Seil, the senior design director of Belkin International‘s Innovation Design Group. Belkin is an accessory company based in Los Angeles that has grown into one of the biggest suppliers of mobile accessories. It has big portfolio products from iPhone and iPad cases to battery packs, surge protectors, networking gear and its line of WeMo home-automation products. We talked to Seil about Belkin’s products and design process, surprising the complexity of USB cables and why they cost so much, and of course why Apple has had such an enormous influence on design and manufacturing.

Leander: So we’re talking to Oliver Seil and you are the senior design director of Belkin, which is based out in LA and Belkin is an accessory maker that makes a ton of products, but you guys got started years ago and relatively modestly. Can you tell me a little bit about Belkin and what you guys are up to these days?

Oliver: Yeah Belkin actually was founded more than thirty years ago in Los Angeles by our founder and CEO, Chet Pipkin and he started making out cables in his Mom’s kitchen. It’s a great story. It’s a really authentic story. So we still make a lot of cables today. That is one of the big areas of our business, but we also make many, many other things really too much higher technology devices, anything around the mobile computing lifestyle you can think of, love Smartphone accessories from power to protection to personalization, surge protection, anything you can think of with regards to mounting and holding and protecting of devices, whether it’s a Smartphone or laptop, for example, we make it.

Leander: Right see and also you’re into homeowner automation with the WiMo line of products.

Oliver: Yeah, Belkin also is the parent company of WiMo and WiMo is our line of home automation smart home products, particularly in the world of switching app-controlled devices for the home. That’s our brand. We pioneered that industry.

Leander: What’s the biggest, you know the most popular growing line of the business? What’s the most popular at the moment?

Oliver: Well we constantly evolve in this company. You know you’d be surprised how much innovation and work is happening in this field. We are incredibly excited about the new field of USB-C technology, anything around a USB 3.1 that’s really the future of connectivity. As mundane as cable’s may appear, the world is changing rapidly in that field and people who know how to make really high quality, safe, well-made cables like us, with our history, will be asked and tasked to make really complicated cables believe it or not. So that’s one big area. We are very excited about things like Thunderbolt Three, which is again really rewarding companies who’ve invested very heavily in quality, engineering and technology. This is not an easy thing to make and Belkin has invested really deeply in that, so we’re very excited about those connectivity solutions. We also do things in the world of screen protection, we do some really fun things there with making that experience better for people. What else? You know powering your devices faster and safer, batteries, and all of that kind of stuff.

Leander: Right, I’m interested in USB-C and Thunderbolt, because this is somewhat controversial in the Apple world with new MacBook Pro’s, there seems to be a huge outcry from the Apple community about the lack of other connectors on the new MacBook Pro’s. You know what’s your position on that? How do you feel about it?

Oliver: Well I would actually look at it from a slightly different angle. I really applaud Apple for making these very tough decisions if you will, you know sometimes deciding what not to do is harder than deciding what to do and this very courageous and leading, you know the thought is I think something I really do appreciate.

Leander: Well the word courageous yeah, I mean just popping into the head because that is what [inaudible 00:04:41] used to talk about losing the headphone jack on the iPhone Seven and because it’s kind of like a controversial term to Apple right. I mean you know there’s been a lot of tweet storms about and hashtags about courage. It is a difficult decision though isn’t it to move forward in such a radical way.

Oliver: It is and I think Apple has done a fantastic job pushing technology forward that way and that’s the business we’re in of course in helping people to make that transition when companies, such as Apple, who are really leading our technological innovation forward, when people are then bridging the time in which they still own a lot of legacy devices, to the future. And our world is full of parallels to this kind of thing. If we didn’t have people who would really pushed courageously and offer us products that can help us make a leap forward in technology make things that are thinner, lighter, faster that way then we’d probably not evolve that fast.

Leander: Is Thunderbolt Three the one connector to rule them all because it seems like there was a lot of turmoil in the last few years with all kinds of different connectors. Is this one that people in the industry that you think is going to standardize on?

Oliver: Well USB-C and 3.1, which people often use interchangeably, which it shouldn’t be. You know USB-C is the connector that is used for Thunderbolt Three, which is actually really fantastic, which means they are reverse compatible. So a Thunderbolt Three equipped device can use a USB-C plug, a USB-C cable and if you have the USB-C cable that matches the specifications of the speeds that you wish to achieve, then all of that is reverse compatible as well. So you can use the Thunderbolt Three plug with a USB-C 3.1 cable to connect to anything down the road. You know a few years from now hopefully we’ll be in a world in which we have far fewer disparate connectors laying around our houses, in our homes, in our junk drawers, and we’ll be able to just truly use one cable type, one connector type, to connect most of our mobile devices. I think that’s something to look forward to actually.

Leander: Right, yeah, yeah, it’s controversial at the moment because you can’t connect an iPhone 7 to the new MacBook Pro, but all the Android handsets are standardizing on USB-C for charging. So do you think Apple is pushing the industry towards this universal adoption?

Oliver: Well I can’t say how long these connectors will be around, each of them, however I think USB-C is that universal connector that you know with the appropriate adapter in some cases, you’ll be able to use for any kind of connectivity. So, ultimately what will happen is cables, the real connecting link between devices, will ultimately, hopefully be kind of a homogenous type. So you will hopefully be able to see in the future much fewer, different types. Some manufacturers may choose to use proprietary connectors for their devices for a long time. I don’t know if what Apple’s plans are for Lightning and USB-C, I can’t say, but as long as there is the need for high quality and safe connectors and adapters then that’s the kind of work that we do, that’s what we’re really great at, and that’s we’re proud to put a lot of resources into.

Why good cables cost more

Leander: Actually a question about Lightning, do you think Apple will consider to use Lightning or go with USB-C?

Oliver: I really can’t speak for what Apple’s plans are. You know each has their own advantages.

Leander: Right, what are the advantages of Lightning? Is there an advantage of Lightning over USB-C?

Oliver: Again I think I can’t speak for what Apple perceives their advantages to be. There are some technological differences between the technologies and obviously we are not trying to argue with Apple over what connector to use. So we’re really heavily focusing our efforts on understanding and perfecting USB-C at the moment. Lightning is comparatively maybe a simpler thing to wrestle with, so yeah.

Leander: Simpler, why is it simpler?

Oliver: So USB-C is simpler because it is a universal and a specified technology that isn’t owned by any company in particular. That’s a great benefit to I think the whole industry where we can all refer to a singular connector type that will ultimately, hopefully, work for most devices, independent of who manufacturers them. If the manufacturer chooses to adhere to the specifications determined by the industrial forum that created the specifications for USB 3.1, so that means that you can use a cable for any device, independent of who makes it, ultimately.

Leander: Right, yeah, yeah exactly. Which leads me to the obvious question, is that why you think Apple uses Lightning because they control the Lightning standard?

Oliver: Yeah I mean I can’t speak for Apple’s ultimate reasons for any of this, but that certainly may have something to do with it.

Leander: Right, yeah, yeah, I was hoping you would just speculate. I know that you don’t- an educated guess you know what I mean, because what about the EU ruling. Didn’t the European Union rule that mobile device makers had to standardize on a one charging and data connection?

Oliver: Yeah and that has certainly spurred on a lot of this development of USB-C and USB 3.1 ultimately, just a fantastic thing in my book. So personally I’m always happy when governing bodies decide to do smart things, which may not always be the case in every case but in this particular case I’m really excited. You know this is to me a little bit akin to you know banning PBC from packaging and other environmental regulations. We have too many things in our junk drawers and they end up in landfill and electronic waste is no joke. There is a lot of waste happening, there’s a lot of environmental potential from environmental damage, and we simply need, in some cases, to have government help us make those transition to give and incentives to move in the right direction. This certainly is the right direction and you now that USB-C cable it really is a technological marvel the way the connectors are designed and if you just think about the complexity of engineering that goes into making something like that. It wouldn’t have happened if this regulation hadn’t happened. So I’m quite happy about that.

Leander: How complex is it? Where does the complexity come from? How much engineering does go into it?

Oliver: Yeah that’s actually at the heart of what we’ve invested so much energy into. So there are two components here of course. The first component is the connector itself, the USB-C connector itself, as small as and simple as it may appear from the outside, it really is no simple feat to create something like that. It can be reversed so that both sides do the same thing, but it has twenty-four leads inside of it. So the twenty-four independent wires, if you will, run through a cable that is full 3.1 specification and a cable like that simply, because it is interchangeable, it can be reversed and used upside down. So it’s really fantastic because you just simply cannot make a mistake. So that’s wonderful. So that means now if you want to have twenty-four leads on a cable at that scale, that requires people to build engineering and manufacturing capabilities that are far more advanced than anything else in this realm of accessories. So you cannot even compare that to a Lightning cable. I think, I could be wrong, I think it has nine connectors. So the complexity and the reliance upon precision engineering and quality control is far greater. So imagine this in the USB 3.1’s cable, used in a device that is compatible with this, is actually capable of transferring about a hundred watts, up to a hundred watts of power through it, to power the device while also transferring data, audio, video, through the same cable. So while, let’s say a Lightning or USB micro-B cable, if it’s not correctly manufactured, may be a nuisance. A cable that might give your laptop power, like we have some devices that allow you to do that, so maybe your laptop gets eighty-five watts of power from that cable while transferring data, audio and video, now imagine something is miswired, now you’re frying your laptop. The media has seen that already. So it’s incredibly important for people to understand that this is not the same thing as a standard USB A to B cable, you know something you plug into your scanner or your printer. It’s an entirely different animal and I expect very interesting things to happen here down the road when people start fully embracing this technology, when manufacturers do, when people do, when they first experience the difference between a really cheaply made cable and a more high quality, more well manufactured cable.

Leander: Are there any other components, I mean you know sort of chips or you know circuit boards that go into the cable? If you open up the connector on some of the cables, don’t they have little tiny circuit boards that are quite complicated?

Oliver: Yeah I’m really glad that you’re pointing this out because of course I got hung up on something else. But a USB 3.1 cable requires the inclusion of some IC’s in the cable heads that help manage the handshake between the devices and that is needed because, as I mentioned when you choose to do more advanced things with your cable, you have also the potential of causing some serious damage. You could, for example, theoretically plug two power supplies into each other. So what happens if you did that? That wouldn’t be very funny, unless the chips inside were able to identify what’s plugged in and in which order power should be or should not be allowed to flow. So that’s very important as well. So again the potential for disaster rises up if you use a cheaply or poor manufactured cable.

Leander: Yeah, yeah right because you know people I think are sometimes dumbfounded that cables can be so expensive and they mark it up to profiteering but they’re actually very complex pieces of technology.

Oliver: And you’re absolutely right. The parallel that I’d draw is you know we’ve all bought a DVD player that came with a HDMI cable in the box and then maybe decided to use that cable or spend much more money, in some cases, to upgrade that cable and the result is you know maybe a clearer image that some people may and other mays not perceive so clearly and there arguably the difference the choices is marginal. You could argue it’s a luxurious thing to do, to buy more expensive cable. This is an entirely different thing where you can really cause damage to your device by using a cheap cable and that’s why, as a company, Belkin has many years ago made a commitment to never compromising on quality and USB-C has really given us the opportunity to further invest in that and to really, really put a lot of emphasis into delivering nothing but the highest quality that we back up with great warranty’s, etcetera but that is because we fully expect some things to happen down the road here that people didn’t expect that they aren’t use to. You know this is just simply something that we’ve never done with our mobile technology with our cables that we’ve been using for some many years.

Leander: Do you have any specific examples of the kind of thing you’re thinking about, you know the kind of stuff, the kind of trouble people might get into?

Oliver: Yeah so there is a very vocal engineer in the Google organization, his name is Vincent Leone, he’s been kind of an advocate, an early advocate for USB-C 3.1 specifically, technology testing. And so he’s been, because Google has been in the forefront of USB-C usage in their laptops, Chromebooks, as well, so very quickly after the first USB-C equipped devices launched to the market, we saw many, many cheaply made, poorly manufactured cables on the market and Vincent has started testing them and he actually has fried his laptop on occasion and been very vocal about that online. So, that’s an example. So I would think now that we are going to see a huge up-surge in USB-C adoption for the purposes of data and power transfer. So the combination of a power supply and connectivity between devices, we’re going to start seeing that kind of stuff happen. So where now you could argue should I buy the cheap Lightning cable or should I buy the expensive Lightning cable, you know, do I buy a Belkin cable that lasts me five years or do I buy a cheap cable for five bucks that may last three weeks. That’s a matter of luxurious choice. Buying the wrong cable could actually fry your device.

Leander: Yeah I think you have a bit of an uphill battle to be faced here I think because you know a lot of people will go for the cheaper cable but it’s going to be a false economy I guess.

Oliver: Yeah we’ll find out. This has just never been tested before, right, this kind of scenario. It’s new and we’ll see how well it works. We really are at Belkin entirely committed to never compromising in safety, in quality and that’s where we siege the opportunity to make the point. You don’t want to buy the cheaply made, poorly made, poorly warranted cable from a manufacturer that might not have the kind of technological insights and capabilities as we do.

Technology and industrial design

Leander: Right, yeah so we’re talking about a lot of technical stuff and what’s the role of industrial design in the creation of products like these and you know highly technical products?

Oliver: Yeah you could of course make a case for the fact that this might not have anything to do with ID and user experience and I think you’d be partially incorrect. So the role of industrial design and user experience at Belkin is tremendous. We actually pioneered in our headquarters here in Los Angeles about seventeen years ago, bringing industrial design user experience, engineering, all the engineering capabilities in-house. That was for a company in our industry that was not something that was commonly done.

Leander: Right, how would it normally be done? It would be contracted out?

Oliver: Yeah, so at best it would be contracted out to consultants but at worst, it would just be non-existent, it would just be a direct import product from overseas, cheaply manufactured, labels affixed and sold. That was really the way most things were made back then. In the mobile accessories and computing accessories world back then, we knew that we wanted to be a company that was based on different values. We started the innovation design group back then, Ernesto Quinteros, who is now the Chief Design Officer at Johnson and Johnson, started our group.

Leander: When was this again?

Oliver: 2000, this was back in 2000.

Leander: And this was about the same time that Apple did exactly the same thing, right? Well actually they did it a bit earlier.

Oliver: They did it earlier, yes.

Leander: Yeah a few years earlier like in the early 90’s?

Oliver: Yes.

Leander: But the same thing, yeah they brought industrial design in-house when it intended to be contracted out.

Oliver: Well I think there is such a benefit to this and it just requires some wisdom on the part of corporate leadership. When you have corporate leaders who really truly believe that making better products is the way to go and not just making cheaper products quickly and you truly want to differentiate on the basis of product and user experience quality, then you just simply shouldn’t leave the job to be done by folks on the outside because the folks on the outside will always be at a disadvantage. You know sometimes that’s done on purpose. You want to have people from the outside help you make solutions happen. That’s often very, very helpful and valuable. Other times, especially in an industry in which speed is so critical, keeping an internal group is just an unbeatable way to get really great products that really match your corporate vision to market.

Leander: So how does it work exactly? How does the group, the user experience, and the industrial design help to make better products?

Oliver: So at Belkin we’re really, really proud of the way we’ve managed to work together with the cross-functional groups in our company. The industrial design team is engaged in the creation of every single product from the very beginning. We have very deep connections inside the organization, so any product discussions, whether it’s a value proposition to begin with, what the product should be and how it should be doing its job, are done from the very beginning with and including the design team and it’s a great cross-functional exercise to bring the business folks together with the sales folks and the engineers and the designers all together and pulling on the same string. So there’s very short distances, it’s a very passionate group of people here that often have spent many, many years in this organization, know it deeply and appreciate it deeply and so that’s how we do it. We really collaborate and that’s how you have to work as an industrial designer. You have to listen, you have to listen very intently to the customer, you have to keep your eye on making sure you listen to both the internal customer, your peers in the different parts of the organization, but also really ultimately uphold the flag for the end user. I mean that’s really how we see our job. We want to try to understand what people want, we’re inspired by people, and to realize the potential of technology that is our corporate value statement. We really are inspired by that. We constantly reiterate that this is how we want to do our business. So the design team’s role here is to enforce that and to put our best foot forward in making things that are not just good looking but also work really, really well and that’s it in a nutshell, trying to make that understandable.

Leander: Yeah right, so you help define the product and you help figure out what exactly it would be and then you also sort of oversee it and guide it and how it actually ends up being made, because I’m sure there must be a lot of compromises during the entire process, right, especially with manufacturing and with costs. Are those the kinds of things that you guys help mediate?

Oliver: Yeah exactly and you know the word cost is a very interesting thing to discuss. I used to always say that when we first started that you know we were trying to make a lot of things for a very low cost and it was often a matter of great comprise and our approach at Belkin to this subject matter has evolved so dramatically, where now we design for what the best product should be, cost is no longer the primary driver of what we do. We believe that the best product is the product that will be most successful and believe it or not, it’s not so much of a struggle at Belkin. You know I think every industrial designer, especially folks in consultancy’s like to tell stories about how difficult clients are when it comes to cost and you know we all have these horror stories. The client’s not listening and things like that. We don’t really have these fights at Belkin so much. We’re really pretty well aligned. So our job is to help guide the team to what the thing that we’re working on should cost, you know based on consumer insights, understanding the world around us and the competitive landscape as well as what kind of job this product can do for people and what it should be worth. And often you find these surprising notions that maybe a product category is fill with commoditized cheap stuff but you can make something that costs more but people still want that just because it’s better or more desirable. So that’s the role we play. We all hear in every organization people have all kinds of skill sets and we require each other’s guidance to ultimately find the right solutions. So that’s what I think is really working great at Belkin. It’s just a really skilled group of people.

Developing the Charge Valet watch and iPhone charger

Leander: So do you have an example of a product you worked on recently and what role ID played in that?

Oliver: Yeah there’s a couple of things we’ve recently launched. So one thing that we just announced is the battery pack for the Apple watch and iPhone, so that’s the Charge Valet, the Valet Charger, I keep messing up the names of our products, it’s very embarrassing, because for me these products have code names and I can never remember their actual names, so my apologies. The Valet Charger Power Pack and the Valet Charger Power Pack was really born from a use-case evaluation that came out of the design team. Very quickly after the launch of the Apple Watch, we realized that every person who is going to be owning an Apple Watch is also owning an iPhone. There is literally zero percent difference, theoretically at least.

Leander: Right because you have to have one to use the other.

Oliver: You do and we also knew through consumer insights that people charge their phones overnight, we also know that people charge their watches overnight from consumer insights so we very quickly made the connection that people are going to hopefully appreciate a product that can let you do both with a battery pack. So we developed this product, the Valet Charger, that combines a built-in watch charging magnetic pocket that is the original Apple Watch charger, it’s built-in with the battery pack. So it’s really compact and allows you to recharge your watch and your phone as you’re traveling or as you’re going about your day without having to carry extra cables. You know extra cables are not something that we like to do so there is a product that was born directly from the ID team and we just launched that. We also have worked on a number products that have price points that are maybe beyond what ordinarily people might imagine would be successful for this kind of accessories world. There’s a product we are very excited about that’s for sale at Apple, it’s also called a Valet and that’s the combined Lightning and watch charger that is exclusively sold at the Apple store. That product is a hundred and thirty dollars, which is pretty expensive for products coming out of an accessory manufacturer, however it’s been tremendously successful for us because people like the solution and they love the industrial design. It’s called a Powerhouse Charge Dock and to me kind of a victory of industrial design user experience over what a rational sales person would have maybe wanted. They may have wanted to make it less expensive, which wouldn’t have allowed us to have the kind of budget to put into the product. So that’s a product made for what the best product should be and not what the most, maybe exciting price point is and regardless of that, it’s been incredibly successful. So there are many victories like that and I call them victories because you know obviously you can’t help but be proud of maybe finding those nuggets in our daily work where we really feel like industrial design makes a difference.

Leander: Right, yeah, yeah and this is very resonant to the Apple fan. It sounds very, very much like exactly what Apple is doing, putting you know the user, the quality of the products, making the best products and hoping that you know, trusting that people will pay for them and that you have to pay to get quality and of course Apple’s been extremely successful at doing that. Do you think, I know, in general this is a lesson that has percolated throughout the consumer electronics industry, would you agree or do you think there’s still a- there’s definitely a history in their legacy of trying to make the cheapest products, but I think in general, this prioritizing of design and user experience, it’s something the design industry has learned, do you think?

Oliver: Oh I can’t even agree more with what you said, so and I want to credit Apple with that as well. You know the accessories industry was not courageous enough and confident enough to make products for a mass audience and believe in products like those I was just describing for a mass audience until maybe very recently. You know the accessories world, let’s put it this way, is a tough industry, this is a tough industry. It’s a lot of competition, oftentimes you know not with USB-C and Thunderbolt and things of that nature and integrating Lightning charge technology and magnetic Apple Watch charging technology into products that’s not simple, but the barrier to entry into the accessories world is generally low and often there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds upon companies who have tried to do this kind of work. But to be truly successful, it’s not about making a sale of an object. To be truly successful you must establish a reputation of quality and that needs to extend through all the touch points of the object that you’re selling to people, the package it’s in, how it’s explained to you, how easy it is to use, how pleasant to be in your environment, how it makes you feel, all of that. And the fact that this is now something that has entered I think the public mindset to a degree, you know where people are aware of that, is a huge achievement and I think it’s an accomplishment that has been, it’s something that has been accomplished to a very large degree I think by Apple. They’ve really celebrated this more than any other company in our time and you know I really credit them a lot and it has really inspired a lot of companies to try to aim in the same direction and Belkin is certainly one of those companies that’s taken a lot inspiration from that so we credit them dearly and they’ve really done a phenomenal job at that. It’s also helped make consumers willing to actually pay a little bit more to get a better product because they just enjoy that more and they expect that. So we hope that we can continue on this path for many years.

Why packaging is important

Leander: Right so absolutely, yeah, yeah, yeah. Definitely I think everyone benefits from this, except of course the lower end accessory makers. You mentioned packaging, you know have you guys changed your packaging, paid more attention to packaging?

Oliver: Oh absolutely. So packaging in our organization is also an industrial design user experience lead discipline where we work very closely with our engineering teams and our marketing teams to create what we would call a good packaging experience and that is not necessarily just out of box experience, that’s a term that’s been used for many years, but it extends past that, it’s how you interact with your package when it’s on a shelf, how it presents the product etcetera. So it’s also something that we take very, very seriously and we’re very proud to be able to invest more time and energy into that aspect. You know often when you get a really nicely made product that may look wonderful in images on the web, when you receive it, it may not be a great way to unbox it. If you’ve ever cut your finger on a package that is not your fault. You know we always laugh about that. I often blame design for issues with user experience. It’s just something we take very seriously, we want to make people feel smart when they use our products, and so yeah we pay great attention to that.

Leander: So you design the packages, you pay as much attention to that as you do anything else?

Oliver: We certainly try.

Leander: I think that comes as a surprise to some people, you know, that that’s the situation, but it’s very much part of the experience right?

Oliver: I think it’s an intrinsic part of what’s part of your perception. Many people maybe are preconditioned through many years of their life experience to not pay attention to that. They may not even realize it so much, but I think all of us know when we buy a new product that we really love, if the package also speaks the same language, it has the same, it sort of exudes the same kind of spirit of that nice product that you’ve just purchased, then that just really rounds out the picture and conversely a poorly made package can really destroy all of that. You know how many times have I bought something that I love and I hated the package and then that really put a little bit of a dark cloud over everything. So, you know are we talking about first world problems maybe? Maybe but that’s something that we all aspire to improve consistently, it even extends into recyclability and what you’re supposed to do with the box after you’ve finished your interaction with the package, you know do we insinuate like for example, you know you and I probably have shelves and shelves of Apple boxes. The insinuation is they are so beautifully.

Leander: How did you know?

Oliver: I could tell. I think I can tell by your history.

Leander: It’s funny they’re the ones that you keep. I think I’ve had my box for years.

Oliver: It’s true and it’s because they’re so beautifully made that you don’t want to throw them away. So the insinuation is I give you a box that is so beautiful that I’m pretty sure that you’re going to keep it. That makes sense because a lot of people do hold onto device boxes because they are maybe unsure about whether they might still need that down the road and you know we all have bought electronic packages that then stack up in your garage and they’re just ugly brown boxes. Why not make those beautiful. So conversely something that is not intended to be kept around for a product, maybe it’s a cable package for example, well we want to make sure you understand how easy it is to disassemble it to recycle it properly. So they are a very subtle nuance to design user experience aspects that we want to pay close attention to.

Leander: Okay, that’s funny yeah, so you’re actually making- you want people to recycle the cable package or the product you know maybe that they’re not going to treasure so much. So you’re giving them clues to that in the design.

Oliver: Yeah I think it’s an aspect of thoughtful predicting of what people might want to do and that’s the job of an industrial designer I think is to a large extent is to be a bit of a psychologist and try to figure out how people would act without thinking too much about it, you know to help them to do intuitively the right thing and like gently steer people in the right direction. I think that’s the job a sophisticated industrial designer.

WeMo home automation and HomeKit

Leander: So you guys have also been getting into Home Kit recently and has that proven to be a challenge?

Oliver: Well we actually have not, ironically, so as I mentioned to you recently we do have our own line of smart home products in the WiMo product line and that is currently our home offering. So that is WiMo and WiMo currently does not work with Home Kit.

Leander: Oh okay, I beg your pardon. Is there a reason for that?

Oliver: So I absolutely pardon you for that and most people have a hard time maybe understanding the subtle differences. Yeah so obviously the people that we best suited to answering that particular technical question are in the WiMo organization, so maybe that’s a better conversation to have, but in a nutshell you know we obviously we really, really respect what Apple’s done in this field. We really are excited about Home Kit and we’re going to see some exciting things in the Home Kit world. WiMo is just not exactly the same thing as Home Kit. The goals of the WiMo product line are to have a slightly different user experience and to offer a broader interaction so that it would require us to essentially redesign the entire product to make it Home Kit compatible. But that’s again, it’s more of a technical question at this point and I just don’t really know that much about it.

Leander: Okay, yeah, not a philosophical one or yeah, or a competitive one.

Oliver: No, we certainly aren’t opposed to Home Kit or anything like that.

Leander: Yeah and home automation is a thicket of different you know competing products and do you think it needs something like Home Kit to make it you know sort of take off?

Oliver: Well you see everybody has talked about the smart home world as a kind of similar thing as with VHS versus Beta or something like that where we’re just still in a transitional world where all these competing technologies are still fighting for dominance and we don’t even know exactly what every customer is willing to buy or you know what everyone is still trying to figure out the best solution for the product experience. And Home Kit is addressing one segment of the market from Apple’s point of view and there are so many other competing points of view still in the field. So our history it goes back almost seven years when we began to build a home automation, a smart home, app controlled software infrastructure that we called WiMo. We really pioneered that and wanted to build a and we built an app-controlled, very multi-faceted world of interconnected devices. So the idea was you don’t need to switch between different apps to control things and you should be able to interrelate the devices that you are controlling with one another so that their behavior could have something to do with one another so you could connect behaviors together, which could have some great benefits. IFT did that, IFT technology, if you’re familiar with that.

Leander: Yeah, yeah.

Oliver: Great power, so it requires a tremendous investment in infrastructure and engineering and design and user experience and WiMo has done a phenomenal job. I think it’s the best system out there today. So Home Kit is another avenue and another way and often it may be a cheaper way to maybe get it into that kind of world of smart home, but I would hope that people who are interested in this take a closer look at the specific capabilities of WiMo versus Home Kit to see the differences. It’s quite a big difference in the way that you are able to connect and control.

Leander: What are they? I’m curious now. So what are the differences?

Oliver: So again, like I’m not a huge technical expert when it comes to WiMo, but the great power comes with the fact that you can easily connect many, many different devices in your home under one umbrella, inside one app. So it would be very easy to control many different lights, many different devices and we offer some technical capabilities like dimming and other sort of subtle, controllable features that other home automation technologies can’t really cover. But I have to admit to you that I’m really not a daily- I don’t have a daily connection with the WiMo, so I’m probably not your best interview partner for WiMo.

Leander: Okay, well I thought that was what Apple’s new Home app did as well for Home Kit, but like you I don’t- I haven’t even dipped my toes in those waters. I’m not sure what the capabilities are or not.

Oliver: Yeah and you find, I meet many people who say my whole house is full of WiMo devices. I’m really excited about it. How’s it going to work with Home Kit? I have to say I don’t know.

Leander: Yeah it’s too bad because I think you know the idea that Siri could be used to control your house is compelling, but it’s still early days isn’t it? I don’t see and it doesn’t look as though it’s really taking off in a big way yet.

Oliver: Yeah and there is definitely controllability with, for example, Amazon Echo can control WiMo devices and there are many other ways to make use of WiMo that way, it’s very, very technically advanced, great user experience.

Bringing a screen protector system to Apple’s stores

Leander: Right, cool, okay. So earlier you mentioned screen protection.

Oliver: Yes.

Leander: So let me ask you about that. What are you guys doing in screen protection?

Oliver: I’m glad that you asked about that. So what is a sexier subject than screen protection after all?

Leander: That’s why you save it for last, you save the best for last.

Oliver: It’s kind of a fascinating world. It’s full of cheap products, lots of very poorly made stuff and it’s another one of those subjects where most people say when you ask them if they’d like to protect your screen, they say yes, have you done it yourself, most people say no, some people say yeah I’ve tried that and it’s terrible then they show you their phone and they have like bubbles under the screen protector.

Leander: Right, right, when you mention screen protection I think bubbles yeah.

Oliver: And as you should because that’s the normal, I think the way most people experience it. We recognize that there is a better way to do that. We recognize that most humans shouldn’t be touching a screen protector and putting it on their screen or anyone should be, let me be more specific, nobody should ever be asked to put that on by hand. It’s just not something humans can do very well and you know short of hiring robots, what can we do is what we asked us there and we actually developed a really fantastic way to improve that experience for people and we developed a system you can find at, for example, at Apple Stores today. It’s called Screen Care Plus. It’s really designed to allow people who work in Apple Stores to be very, very confident when they apply screen protectors. And in fact so we offer a number of different types of screen protectors but the real wonderful thing here is that when you buy a screen protector in the Apple Store the Apple Store employee will use our system to apply the screen protector to your phone and it will come out a hundred percent correct every single time.

Leander: Okay so it’s a system of putting a protector onto your screen that’s available at the Apple Store. Is it available in other stores too?

Oliver: It’s available in other stores as well, but it’s going to look a little bit different. It’s going to be a slightly different experience. We developed the Screen Care Plus system for the Apple Store and it has its own look and feel and its very refined and we’re incredibly proud of it because it makes the Apple Store employees quite happy you know when they work with this system to make the experience better. You know the job they have to do is to keep their customers happy and to make them satisfied and that’s what this helps them to do. They are all really professional people and it’s nice for them to have a set of tools that are really simple that take a high quality screen protector from Belkin and allow that to be applied a hundred percent correctly every single time and that takes that fear factor out of it, it makes it quick and easy; it’s kind of fun to watch, if you’ve ever seen it.

Leander: How does it work? What does it do?

Oliver: Well you know some of us, you and I are certainly old enough to remember Polaroid cameras, when you pull a Polaroid, that’s a satisfying memory I have, pulling Polaroid film out of Polaroid cameras. It’s a little bit like that. Imagine your phone along with a screen protector inserted into a little mechanical contraption, we call it the Applicator and then you pull on a tab and when you pull that tab out, you remove the protective layer from the screen protector and that then affixes the screen protector perfectly aligned to the phone screen and we have a number of ways to keep out dust and to help it stay really clean and it’s really kind of fun to watch, people get big eyes and they’re kind of delighted to see it and you know there are some other benefits. There is a little trash container and a nice work surface and some tools that we’ve developed that are kind of fun to use and yeah it’s making that experience that used to be a really nerve wracking thing for most people who work in stores, a more calm and enjoyable experience.

Leander: Right, so yeah, yeah. Okay I’d love to check that out. Screen protection, like you said, you know I walked around with a badly scratched, my previous iPhone I scratched it within the first couple of days of when I got it and then I had to live with this scratch that bugged me every time I looked at it, for more than a year.

Oliver: It’s annoying. I always tell people I’ve dumped my first iPhone 6S within twenty-two hours of receiving it onto the floor before I had a chance to put our own screen protector on it. That was also a great experience but it’s a great example for how you can really cause some disruption to the retail experience. You know the fact that industrial design and user experience, along with some really great engineering talent that we employ here, has the ability to reach into those areas. I think it’s a testament to what we at Belkin have been able to achieve over the years. It’s a level of capability that is just way beyond the standard accessory maker’s capabilities. It’s just an entirely different animal. You know we’re not somewhere in Hong Kong or nothing against Hong Kong, but we’re an authentically US based, California born and raised bred company and we do things here that are innovative that are tremendously technically challenging, very sophisticated and we pride ourselves on really pushing hard on ID, UX, retail experience, and providing people with products that are better and better every year that hopefully build our brand to where we want it to be and continue to be more desirable.

Leander: That’s all we have time for this week. I’d like to thank Oliver Seil of Belkin’s Innovation Design Group.

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About Kahney’s Korner

Kahney’s Korner is a weekly podcast about the world of Apple. It’s a big Apple world out there, and there are tons of great, fascinating stories to tell.

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Kahney’s Korner #9: How Belkin’s In-House Industrial Design is Changing the Industry, with Oliver Seil, Senior Design Director at Belkin International. Subscribe to Kahney’s Korner on iTunes or Google Play.

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