How do you go about designing a phone like Nokia Lumia 925? The answer, as we've been finding out, is to test absolutely everything to destruction...
Search anywhere online for Nokia memes and the one thing that’ll come up time and time again is a reference to the classic Nokia 3310 being completely indestructible. The funny thing is, though, Nokia’s reputation for making hardy phones doesn’t stop with that old workhorse: every single device from that to the brand new Nokia Lumia 925 are built to be incredibly durable. But how does Nokia manage it? How do you design a modern smartphone that’s built to last?
We wanted to figure out what goes into making phones so sturdy that they’re famed for it, so we’ve gone straight to the source: Stefan Pannenbecker, head of product design at Nokia.
Making metal meaningful
The Nokia Lumia 925 is a bit of a stunner, and that’s in part due to the fact that it’s the first Lumia phone to incorporate metal in the design. Making the leap from polycarbonate to metal isn’t something you take lightly, though, as we found out:
“It’s quite a departure in terms of how we build the product,” Stefan explains. “The 920 was very much about using coloured polycarbonate and a mono-body design. When we started the 925, we wanted to build a true Nokia product, but the starting points were much different. That immediately has some implications on how we design and build the product.”
Those implications, as it turns out, are all to do with how metal affects the antenna: “The more metal you use in a product, the harder it is to have really great antenna performance, unless you make the metal part of the antenna. And then, the moment you start thinking about using metal, you have to start thinking about manufacturing processes, which are different.”
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“That’s quite a comprehensive approach involved,” Stefan adds, “but the benefit is that you have a product that feels really solid in the hand, and has the same connotations surrounding metal that people like, such as longevity. There is an inherent quality to metal that people really like, and it was something we hadn’t yet covered in the Lumia portfolio.”
Ok, so metal is a whole new bag for Lumia devices, so how do you go about designing a phone that’s as solid as Nokia handsets ever were when you’re treading new ground at the same time? The answer, is to run it through every test under the sun…
Testing… 1, 2, 3
“It’s pretty shocking, actually, what we do with our products,” Stefan says, laughing. “There’s an incredible amount of testing methods that all our products have to undergo. That’s based on a really strong focus on quality within the company. It’s in Nokia’s DNA.”
And those tests really put new phones through their paces – right from the prototype stage onwards:
“So, for example, we do ‘tumbler tests’,” says Stefan. “That’s where, we put the phone into something similar to a tumble dryer and let it spin round for hundreds of cycles. We expect the phone to still work after that. That’s to see how the design reacts to drops on all of its edges and sides and corners, but that’s just one thing.”
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“There’s a lot of other tests we do, including some weird stuff that nobody else thinks about. We end up covering our phones in sun lotion for days, just to make sure the materials don’t react to some of the chemicals in that lotion. We don’t want the product to degrade when people who are using it to make a call are wearing sunscreen.
“We also expose devices to UV light in a very controlled environment that simulates the effect of up to two years’ worth of sunlight, to make sure that the resins and the colours we use don’t discolour. Sometimes UV light will have an effect where it can make the material brittle, too, so we test for that.
“We do drop tests, too, where we like to drop the device onto its side or front from a certain height onto different surfaces.
“The level of testing,” Stefan says, “is vast and very comprehensive.”
Designing as you test
Something else that lends to the comprehensiveness of these tests is the fact that they’re not all done at the end of the design process, but during – with the results shaping the design. Stefan explains that, alongside longstanding industry knowledge, he and his team use feedback from the phone’s damage tests to tweak the design as they go along:
“There’s an incredible amount of experience in the company. The idea is that we build on what we’ve learnt from previous products and use it in new ones. But beyond that, there are ways you can test and predict how a product will behave in certain tests. In the very early stages,” he says, “you can actually simulate drop tests in a computer.
“Once you start designing the product you get feedback from simulated tests that help you refine things. Then we have early prototypes. These are hand-built, but they’re made of the same materials and components that are meant to go to market. And then you can do physical tests.”
“We had an early prototype of the Lumia 925, which we immediately destroyed in tests.”
“We keep doing that throughout the process,” he adds. “So, at one point, we had the first early prototype of the Lumia 925, which we immediately destroyed in tests, and then built a newer, more refined one… And did the same again! That’s how we make sure that by the time the product hits the shelves, it’s really flawlessly executed.”
And flawlessly executed it is. The Nokia Lumia 925 is the result of 18 months of expert design prowess, all fuelled by these endless, exhaustive tests – and that’s why it’s a looker with some serious staying power.
Stefan’s revealed that it’s Nokia’s inherent desire to make form match function, along with the use of materials that can really hold their own, that helps the company’s reputation for near-indestructible phones live on.
Get the full story: For more information, check out our complete Nokia Lumia 925 guide.