Inside Belkin, Part 2: The Industrial Design Process of the TrueClear Pro

Inside Belkin, Part 2: The Industrial Design Process of the TrueClear Pro

After dropping and shattering my expensive iPhone several years ago, I replaced it and took steps to prevent it from happening again. I kept the phone inside an absurdly bulky, tank-like protective case by Pelican, completely obscuring the beauty that Apple’s designers had slaved to produce. 

This case was as indestructible as it was inconvenient. The raised bumpers on the side prevented my finger from using the full width of the touchscreen, making it impossible to advance to the beginning or end of a podcast. Sometimes, depending on the task I was doing, the phone was so bulky that I needed to snap it into a clip and place it on my belt. I would occasionally lose the clip and waste time looking for it. The thickness of the case meant it wouldn’t fit into the pockets I previously liked to carry a phone in, and this actually influenced what clothes I wore.

Eventually I felt I didn’t own the phone, and that the phone owned me.

When enough was enough, I went to the Apple store and bought their super-slim leather case and a Belkin screen protector. At $40, the latter seemed expensive to me, but the store employee assured me it offered great protection, and asked if I dropped my phone a lot. (I do; I’m a butterfingers.)

“We can put the screen protector on for you,” he said.

“No thanks, I got it,” I said. I’m an industrial designer with studio experience. I’ll be way better at putting this thing on than you. Then I remembered trying to put the screen protector onto my dad’s phone for him, and the air bubbles, and the cursing.

“Are you sure?” he said. “We’ve got a machine that puts it on. It only takes a few seconds.”

“Uh, okay,” I said, curious.

The employee returned with a contraption, and then I got to witness this:

I was fascinated by the machine and the procedure. “I am really impressed with how the designers of this object thought through the entire process,” I wrote on Core77 last year. “The first green-skinned film you see being applied to the phone is to remove any dust or lint from the screen, the Apple employee explained to me. After that’s removed they drop it into the machine, and as you can see the tabs keep everything perfectly aligned. It seems pretty idiot-proof.”

At the time, I lamented that the anonymous industrial designers behind this device would probably never receive credit.

Little did I know that those very designers were reading Core77, and that I’d get to share the story of that device with you; Belkin reached out to me after that entry went up, and offered to open the doors to their facilities and allow me to interview the designers. (Full disclosure: Belkin paid for the flight.)

Belkin is located in the “Silicon Beach” area of Los Angeles, the coastal area known for tech startups. An emphasis on design is a priority for the company, and hidden within what appear to be regular office buildings is an industrial designer’s playground filled with studios, shops and machines: Prototyping facilities, conventional workshops, digital fabrication machines, testing facilities, package design mock-up areas, a photography studio. They even had one of those consumer research rooms with the one-way mirrors, where test subjects are asked to open or assemble Belkin items; their ease or difficulty is recorded by overhead cameras, and designers review the footage to figure out how to improve the end user’s experience.

You can see a slideshow of the photos we were allowed to show you here. But we were really there to learn about the people and processes behind the design of the TrueClear Pro, and for that we interviewed the designer at the top.

Oliver Seil is Belkin’s Vice President of Design, and he defies easy categorization: Crisply-dressed and precise, the German expat has the serious look of a European designer–yet the laid-back demeanor of a native Californian. He seems young enough to be a grad student, yet he’s been at Belkin for nearly two decades. After a number of years as Senior Director, Seil assumed the helm of the design group, where he harnesses Belkin’s considerable resources–both human and technical–to execute projects that produce clear rewards, to both the end user and the company, while adhering to Belkin’s motto of “People inspired.”

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Core77: The Belkin device that I saw in the Apple Store was designed to solve a problem. What is that problem and how did you first become aware of it?

Oliver Seil: A member of our European team had an insight: Phones are getting larger screens, and people are worried about breaking them. They want screen protectors–but because they’re so hard to put on, people in retail stores aren’t trying to sell them very much, because they’re afraid that they will be asked by the customer to apply them. [The employees] don’t like having to do that because it takes a lot of time, it’s stressful and usually not successful; it’s just not something humans are good at.

So a huge opportunity lies within that. If we were to solve that, we could sell a lot more screen protectors, because we’d have all retail employees feel really great and confident about applying them. And then the consumer gets what they really want: To protect their screens.

Was it obvious to the company that this was an industrial design problem?

Yes. And it was very clear, early on, that there wasn’t an easy way to solve this. When we first heard the problem we were scratching our heads: How do you do that successfully? Various companies had developed a bunch of different products to help people put screen protectors on, but none of them felt retail appropriate. They weren’t durable, or didn’t have the right kind of nuanced design and usability approach. They were very clunky, engineering-heavy solutions.

It took us a while to warm up to the challenge–what happened is, our team had hired a design consultancy in Europe to build [a solution] that was so atrocious that it kicked us awake. We said, “No, we’re not going with that. We’re going to do it.”

What was the first step?

To build a business plan. Ours was created around [a dollar amount that would emerge] if we were to solve it, and it was so compelling that people said, “Oh, that’s a nice number.” Then it quickly became an ID user experience challenge, and we [the design group] took the lead on finding out how to solve those problems. What would be the elements that would need to be resolved? And then it branched into an ID/UX and mechanical engineering challenge.

Speaking of which, what is Belkin’s typical process–when do you bring in the designers and when do you bring in the engineers?

So in general, almost everything Belkin makes goes through ID, UX, ME (Mechanical Engineering) teams.

In that sequence?

Not necessarily, but mostly. We have a multistage design/engineering/development process that goes through a business review, where we begin to understand how complex something is to design and engineer. And then we assign the appropriate amount of resources to design or engineering based on whatever the challenge is. It’s usually ID/UX first, and then quickly joining hands with the engineering teams.

In this particular instance, how did it unfold?

ID/UX took the lead with product management to help understand the challenge, because it was so different from anything else we’d ever made. Normally we know what goes “into the box”– it has a circuit board or a mechanism that is understood, and we can quickly go into ID efforts to wrap it in a nice, appropriate enclosure, perhaps. And then we work with engineering to build that.

But here, it was completely different. We didn’t even know how to solve the problem. The challenge was “We want to apply a screen protector with this level of precision, with this level of ease, onto a customer’s phone in this environment–but we don’t know how. Nobody’s ever solved how to do that.”

So we quickly said, “We can’t lead with ID. We can set some user experience boundaries and then let engineering figure out how to actually solve the problem.” So that’s what we did. We built a set of goals for the outcome. And we said, “Right now we don’t really care what it looks like, we first have to build the internal.” We had to build that engine first, then build the car around it. So then the engineering team went off and did their work on how to actually do this application.

What did the Design department do while Engineering was working on that?

ID and UX were busy figuring out everything surrounding the applicator. We built the knowledge internally about how retail associates work, how they are rewarded, what does it mean for them to be successful in their job, what motivates somebody who works in a retail store around these types of accessories? So that we could start digging into understanding [this new type of] user really well. Our core expertise is regular folks, people like you and I that use mobile electronic equipment, they live and drive and have homes and work and all that stuff. We understand that user very well. But when it comes to understanding how this user would work, it was a different animal.

That was one of the core learnings–this is not for you and me, this is for someone who works in a retail store and has to make money using these tools, and hopefully we can make this so good that they would love using it. So that they would effectively help us bring this product, a screen protector, to the end user.

How and where did you conduct that research?

We have phenomenal relationships in the industry–from telcos to big box retailers to shops–and leveraged them to spend many, many hours around the globe in different retail environments. In Korea, Japan, the U.S., Germany, the U.K. We watched people and asked them “What happens when somebody asks you to put a screen protector on? And what is your process for what happens when you mess up?” We learned that 20% to 30% of applications go awry, it’s very normal. So then they have to do this again and go through a process of return merchandise authorizations and so on. How do we help them get around that so that they would embrace the system, start using it?

We had a lot of help from the global team, as well. We actually didn’t all do this ourselves as a design team; we have a lot of engaged sales folks that are really interested in helping with efforts like this, so it’s pretty easy for us to leverage them as well. We give them a plan, go and ask these questions, come back with these answers, take pictures, feed it to us. It was a great effort. It was fun.

What happened after Engineering emerged from their lab with working prototypes?

We were participating in some of that work as well. But, what happened is we then were able to make a decision on which of the four [prototypes they developed] we would like to work on more. We chose the largest and biggest and bulkiest of the four, for a number of reasons, then said “Now, let’s make this thing as elegant as possible. Make it palatable, so that it can live out in the world, and we are proud to put a Belkin logo on it.”

What led you to choose this prototype over the other three?

The criteria that we wanted to apply: Which is the most practical, works the best, is most reliable, and is most realistically viable in the marketplace? It can’t be ugly, weird or strange–we want it to have form, usability, an appearance appropriate for what we wanted to accomplish. It needed to be professional, and not feel overly theatric; one prototype had an inflatable electric pump that worked quite well to push air bubbles from the middle to the outside, but [it was overly complicated].

The chosen system, which became the TrueClear Pro CX, had interchangeable inserts to accommodate different phones; it was one big central object that doesn’t go anywhere, it just stays in one place, and then you bring to it the boxes [filled with the application materials]. It worked really well, so we worked with the engineering team to take their mechanical solution and make it more aesthetically viable, interesting looking, polished and modern.

So Engineering figured out the mechanicals; how did Design get it the rest of the way there?

We designed the aesthetic around the overlays and helped with the usability, because one of the things that hadn’t been figured out is: How do you make it error proof?

That was accomplished in the next stage. We designed it so that a phone and screen protector cannot be inserted in the wrong direction, there’s guiding pins that have different sizes.

For the screen protector, we designed this sleek envelope package that is very inspired by food packaging. It’s very sanitary, there’s no dust in it. It’s pulled open like a fresh package of something that has never been opened.

We devised the desktop box, which is that green box that opens up to reveal the product, the cradle [for the phones], the interchangeable components, the tools, and a work surface.

We devised instructions, taking inspiration from McDonald’s and Taco Bell–places where people don’t get a lot of training, but visual instructions to avoid the need for language and translations. We designed it so that the user never takes the wrong part and and tries to put it in the wrong way, accidentally looking bad in front of the customer and having to do it over. We wanted to eliminate errors. The goal was to ensure that anyone who uses this always feels good about themselves.

What are some aspects of the design that are not, and would never be, obvious to the consumer?

We designed an entire lineup of logistical components dealing with packaging that would allow you to easily refill depleted stock. Because, don’t forget, the packaging here lives inside of these boxes, it’s not meant to hang on planograms.

There was a whole ‘nother thing that needed to be sorted out: When a store runs out of the screen protectors, how do they reorder it, and how does that reorder package quickly get integrated into the system? That was another really fun aspect to dig into, the backstory of how something ends up in a store. We figured out, for a number of large retailers, how that works.

How did you gather the data?

We went there, talked to them. We learned how it looks in the “back of the house,” how they get the stock, and from where. It was a phenomenal learning exercise.

It’s interesting that you started off designing a screen protector for consumers, and the ID trail leads you down this path where you’re putting a lot of design attention on a supporting device, and entire system, designed for a retail user.

It’s such a premium to be able to get into the hearts of retail associates, because if they like your product, they’re going to sell it for you. So we wanted to design something a retail employee would genuinely appreciate: “This helps you be better at your job. It helps you be more successful, make more money, look better to your customers, have a better time at work.”

It’s a win-win for everybody: It’s a better product for the end user of the screen protector; In the process of having it applied, they like their experience better in the retail environment that they’re in; and the retailer profits, they sell more screen protectors, it works for everybody.

We could only do that by understanding all the reasons for what motivates people. We dug as deeply as we had to in order to make that whole experience seamless and easy for them. And that can only happen when you leverage really smart design thinking–user experience that’s truly empathetic, that really thinks about the lives and the working environments of people. When you then connect that with a great engineering capability, and then the logistics backbone, we were able to bring all of that together. So it was a really great, interesting experience, one that there’s not a lot of equals to.

In the years since you debuted the device, your sales of screen protectors went up by a factor of eight. Can you tell me what that translates to, in terms of dollars?

Last year, [redacted] dollars.

Holy COW! Can I print that number?

PR Handler: No!