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How to design a modern-day flip-style foldable smartphone

Ruben Castano, global head for customer experience and design at Motorola, talks about the challenges of designing a foldable and the enduring charm of a flip phone

Motorola has recently introduced the next generation of razr smartphones: the Razr 40 and Razr 40 Ultra.
Motorola has recently introduced the next generation of razr smartphones: the Razr 40 and Razr 40 Ultra. (Lenovo/Motorola)

The second generation of flip-style foldables are upon us, with larger external displays that allow users to do more with the device flipped closed, a marked shift from cover displays that are good for little more than notifications and limited quick actions. Leading the charge is the new Moto RAZR 40 Ultra (Rs. 89,999) and its 3.6” external display, launched earlier this week and available 15 July onwards. This space will only get hotter with the latest Samsung foldables also launching end-July.

Along the sidelines of the RAZR 40 series launch in New Delhi, Lounge spoke with Ruben Castano, global head for customer experience and design, for Motorola’s Mobile Business Group (MBG) as he held large on the foldables segment.

In this role, Castano and his team design both the physical products (smartphones) as well as all the software experiences that accompany them. Castano is also in charge of product consumer research for Motorola MBG, which forms a critical input into the design and development of its devices, as well as bringing to life the story behind each product via marketing materials. As Castano reasoned, who better than the creative team who created the product in the first place to help bring that story to life. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Next year, we're coming on 20 years of the iconic original Moto RAZR (2004), which, for some quarters, still serves as the style guide for how cool phones are to be made. What is the enduring charm of a flip phone that doesn't go away?

It's multiple factors, especially when we talk about the original iconic RAZR, the V3. It was extremely innovative for its time because of the use of materials like aircraft-grade aluminum. The design itself was very progressive - the ultra-thin keyboard that had that lighting effect on it looked extremely modern and futuristic. All that just created an emotional connection with consumers that lives on to this day.

And you might think - well, millennials, Gen Z, they were not even born when the original RAZR was around. But you know what? Those digital consumers of today are realizing that the flip form factor allows them to create a little bit of filter between their digital life and, instead of being heads down on their device, actually being heads up and talking to other people, which is more important. And to give them that filter (between their phone and reality), the flip phone factor is ideally positioned to do that.

You’ve spoken in the past about how pocketability and portability are key drivers for the RAZR series. Talk us through some of those design innovations that happened in this current launch that you did that build on those themes?

When you talk about building on common themes, from the very first generation of RAZR as a smartphone (2019), a lot of the work that we did as a team and as a company was to understand the ideal proportions that a flip form factor needed to have once it became a smartphone. So those have carried on into this generation.

We know what the right width is, what the right aspect ratio is that just fits really comfortably into consumer's hands, that allows them to do many things. In this generation, we have the largest external screen of any flippable smartphone on the RAZR 40 Ultra. But even before that, we've always had very functional, very large external screens. So all that knowledge about core ergonomic factors, functionality of the external screen, and in general, what consumers expect to do on a flippable device, has been a journey that has led us to innovate on this new family of products.

What are the innovations, you ask? The massive external screen is one of them. We challenged ourselves to basically design an external screen experience where you could do anything without having to flip the device open. We feel like we've achieved that - with our work, with our partnership with Google, with companies like Spotify in the development of custom panels (for the external screen): you can pretty much run any application without ever having to open the device.

But that even stayed true on the RAZR 40 where while the external screen is smaller, we made sure that core functionality - taking care of settings, messaging, and so on - was still fully functionally enabled on that external screen.

The next big innovation, I think, was realizing through consumer research that what people really wanted was a device that could keep up with what they were doing on a daily basis. Sometimes I'm just consuming content, sometimes I need to create content - so we gave this device a lot of flexibility in how it can adopt different modes of use, being on a table in different positions, allowing me to now create content without having the need for a tripod because the device is self-standing. This device also connects seamlessly to any PC that is Windows 10 and above, thanks to our ‘Ready For’ platform, which creates a perfect ecosystem between an Android device and a Windows based PC. All those things came into play into what we defined as innovation into this device.

Lastly, the design itself. We kept all the core tenets: for instance, the zero-gap hinge that is proprietary to Motorola since day one. That’s made possible by the teardrop shape of folding the display, which not only allows you to be very thin and slim as a device, but it also prevents foreign materials from getting inside the main internal display.

There’s a metal frame, but in this generation, the hinge has completely disappeared when opened. A lot of work went into making the device look almost like a traditional candy bar form factor. When it's open, you don't see hinge mechanisms, and when you flip it around, also all that you see is all screen with very small borders.

Since I'm talking about design, one last thing - color, materials, and finishes, all part of our strategic partnership with Pantone. This includes the 2023 color of the year (Viva Magenta), but also the way we designed the RAZR 40 where we decided to put vegan leather not only on the base of the device but also on the flip. This was thanks to consumer feedback and positive reception of the material – it’s very soft to the touch, very grippy and consumers feel like it's never going to fall out of their hands. Many consumers tell us they won’t even put a case on this device thanks to the material.

How far are we away from going completely creaseless on the foldable display?

We've made constant progress, generation to generation. I feel like the result we've achieved on this device, once the display is powered on, completely eliminates the crease. Of course, if you look closely under certain lighting conditions, you can still see a crease. As to how far away we are from completely creaseless displays, I can't really comment about future developments but what I can tell you is that we have a proprietary formula in terms of the layers that we use to build the display stack up. It's not only the plastic OLED screen, it's close to seven layers in total that are needed to create the complete folding system. So, we will continue to develop those until we reach that point where no one sees a crease on the device.

Ruben Castano, global head for customer experience and design, for Motorola’s Mobile Business Group.
Ruben Castano, global head for customer experience and design, for Motorola’s Mobile Business Group.

You previously mentioned elements of surprise as a guiding design principle. Where are those aha moments that customers will find in these devices?

Correct. Let me explain a couple of things just very quickly, taking a step back. Surprise is one of three core tenets that we have as a design team. The other two are simplicity and you can see that in the way this RAZR 40 Ultra design was executed. There's no extra design elements. There's a desire of a very pure, simple form that is really driven by comfort in hand and style. Richness is our second design principle, and we really express that through materials, colors, and finishes. Then to your point, that element of surprise.

Let me give you an example. If I launch the camera, one example of that is how I can grab the attention of maybe a young child is by having a cartoon character on that external display (while taking a photo). Or, that external display can also become your viewfinder, so you as the subject can tell me if you're ready to take the picture.

I think the other element of surprise is just in how adaptable the phone can get, thanks to our hinge and displays - this form factor lends itself to different ways of using it, different ways of propping itself up on a table or on a stand, different ways of now holding it (like a handycam) to create and capture content. I think those are the elements that will bring that a-ha moment, that surprise.

Why do we use surprise? We use it to create a stickiness, an emotional connection with consumers. Because once they do that, once they realize that you can turn on the flashlight by simply doing a gesture or quickly launch the camera, like I showed you by twisting your wrist, those just become part of their daily flow and it's very hard to move away from them. That's what we're after: sticky emotional connections.

In the current generation of foldable phones, what are the top two things that have to be sacrificed for this form factor. Batteries and cameras seem to be the obvious candidates, but is there anything else which is on your wish list to really address with a sense of urgency? What are those things that keep you awake at night?

You're absolutely right. With this form factor, it's been a journey, and we've been lucky to now be on our fourth generation. From the very first one, space is the number one challenge with this type of form factor. Why? Because you have to duplicate what a traditional smartphone is, you have to duplicate the batteries, the PCB board, certain other components on both the base and the flip of the device.

Then, you need a lot of connections and cables that go between the base and the flip of the phone - all that ends up being space that you could otherwise use to increase capacity, to increase battery, to maybe squeeze a bigger speaker chamber and get better sound.

Notwithstanding those limitations, the progress we've made on this latest generation is outstanding. It's still a very thin, ultra-compact design. We have stereo speakers now that sound great with spatial sound and Dolby Atmos. We've increased the battery capacity. More than that, it comes with fast turbocharging and wireless charging, which is also a key component of premium smartphones.

We see it as a journey, it will continue to evolve. Yes, there are some technologies that are beyond our direct control, but we are actively working with suppliers and partners to do specific solutions that cater to the flippable smartphone to continue to address those, let's say, somewhat pain points that consumers might find. But with this latest generation, it's a premium device through and through. We feel like we've left nothing on the table that should be there.

Finally, there's a sense of commoditization of technology. There’s also some amount of consumer sentiment which is probably a little dipping in terms of spending and all those macro factors. There’s some amount of technology fatigue with all that time home with the pandemic. Given all of that, where do you set your sights for the next 18 to 24 months?

This is a very broad question, but it's actually a question that fits exactly into what we're doing as a company from a strategy and consumer experience point of view... When an industry matures to the point where the mobile industry has matured, it's inevitable that devices become commoditized. So, for us, especially as a design organization, the most important thing is to transform technology into meaningful experiences. If we only focus on specs as a spec race, that's too narrow focused, and you're absolutely right - others can do it as well or maybe even better than us. So that's not our approach.

Our approach is to go beyond the spec race. Our devices will have top of the line or will have very competitive specs according to those respective price points, but we will complement that experience to the consumer by doing two things - transforming the technology that we have into something that meaningful, that fits into their everyday life. And you will see us do not only excellent hardware but bring more and more software solutions and services as an added value to our consumers. That's our path forward over the next 12 to 24 months.

Tushar Kanwar, a tech columnist and commentator, tweets @2shar.

Also read: Week in tech: Global foldable smartphone market continues to expand

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