by Teo Yu Siang

All of 2017's flagship phones have glaring compromises. Here’s what they tell us about design.

On September 12th, Tim Cook unveiled the iPhone X. The 10-year anniversary iPhone sports a “bezel-less” 5.8 inch screen in a beautiful new design. It features a new facial recognition technology called Face ID, which uses 3D imaging and infrared, meaning it can be used in the dark and is more accurate than fingerprint scanning (unless you’re a twin). Apple claims it to be the future of the smartphone.

There is a problem, though. iPhone X has a design compromise staring right at us. The “bezel-less” screen of the iPhone X runs from rounded edge to edge, but has a prominent notch—a cutout—right at the top of the screen. The notch houses the imaging system required to carry out Face ID authentication.

This top notch design breaks the otherwise seamless, beautiful screen. It seems like an odd design choice — a concession from Apple that it cannot achieve the accuracy of its new Face ID without sacrificing its screen. Even worse, the notch makes for awkward interfaces when the phone is used in landscape:

When you look closer at the iPhone X, you’ll find even more compromises. For instance, that Apple had tried—but failed—to place a fingerprint sensor beneath the edge-to-edge display. And when it failed, it decided to cut a notch off the edge-to-edge screen to implement Face ID, rather than place a Touch ID sensor at the back of the phone. Furthermore, the iPhone X has yet to fix the camera bump at the back (thanks, iPhone 6), and continued the courageous absence of the headphone jack (thanks, iPhone 7).

At this point you might be thinking: “What is Apple doing? Can you even call this a premium flagship device?!”

Well, hold that thought—let’s go to another flagship “bezel-less” smartphone of the year.

A few months before Apple announced the iPhone X, Samsung held its own Unpacked event to launch the Samsung Galaxy S8. The S8 is a stunning phone with a “bezel-less” 5.8 inch display. With a curved screen (and no notches), the S8 has a beautiful silhouette that looks like there’s no bezel at all on the sides.

But wait—there are a few problems, too. For one, Samsung had also tried and failed to place a fingerprint sensor under the S8’s display. Unlike Apple, it chose instead to place a fingerprint sensor at the back of the phone. Unfortunately, it was placed right next to the camera lens, meaning it’s very easy to tap on the camera instead of the sensor, thus smudging the lens. LG’s V30, in comparison, placed a fingerprint sensor at the back too, but away from the camera so that accidental taps on the lens are minimised.

S8 offers users other unlocking methods, though: iris and facial recognition… both of which are security risks. S8’s facial recognition could be fooled by an image of your face. The iris scanner—touted as “the highest level of biometric authentication”—could be easily tricked as well. In other words, S8’s biometric authentication methods are compromised solutions.

Want more compromises? Samsung built a dedicated button into S8 for triggering Bixby, its smart assistant meant to rival Google’s Assistant. But Bixby wasn’t available at launch in the US. When it was eventually released, it turned out to be pretty horrible. The worst part? Samsung refuses to allow users to re-map the Bixby hardware button to perform other actions.

But hey, what about other flagship “bezel-less” smartphones released the same year?

Meet the LG V30, LG’s own beautiful, “bezel-less” smartphone that looks a little too much like the S8. To be fair though, all edge-to-edge screens with thin side bezels and thicker top and bottom ones are going to look the same. And that’s a design compromise in itself.

V30 also offers facial recognition, with two options: a default mode, which can be easily fooled with an image, and an “advanced” mode, which is harder to trick but takes an extra second to unlock the phone. Yes, one second!

LG’s latest flagship has a dual camera setup, and allows users to record videos in Log format (a minimally processed file format that allows pro users to tweak the videos with more flexibility). Unfortunately, the dual camera phone won’t allow users to shoot photos with a depth-of-field bokeh effect. Oh, and it also has a slight camera bump.

I think you can see what I’m getting at, so I’ll skim through t̶w̶o̶ three other flagship phones released in 2017.

Essential Phone was a highly anticipated phone by Andy Rubin, the co-father of Android. It has an edge-to-edge screen, except for a notch at the top like the X, albeit a much smaller one. It has interesting magnetic pins at the back of the phone that allow you to attach peripherals, like a 360˚ camera. However, the Essential’s cameras are essentially useless because they’re horrible—and that’s as unforgivable a compromise in a flagship as possible. It also doesn’t have a headphone jack (thanks again, iPhone 7).

Hang on, is this a flagship phone released in 2017? But it’s not “bezel-less”! Sadly, yes—this is HTC’s U11.

Source: HTC

It has a gorgeous “liquid surface” glass back that’s very pretty to look at, but also pretty slippery to hold onto. How slippery? The U11 ships with a phone case, that’s how slippery it is to hold. HTC’s flagship has one of the best cameras on a smartphone, but unfortunately also has previous-generation thick bezels that make it look at least one year old on launch. Also—surprise—it doesn’t have a headphone jack.

Edit: Due to popular demand, here’s a quick skim through Xiaomi’s Mi Mix 2.

Mi Mix 2 didn’t quite break as much ground as its predecessor, but it’s still a beautiful phone. With a smaller screen than last year’s and a more rounded profile, however, it unfortunately results in an all-too-familiar look (see the S8 and V30 above). It only has a bottom bezel — and no notch at the top — which results in a very high screen-to-phone ratio. This meant, however, that the front-facing camera was tucked to a bottom corner, which poses serious problems when taking selfies and video calls. Despite being a flagship phone, Mi Mix 2 only offers a single camera setup, which means it won’t be able to take shallow depth-of-field photos. Oh, and (repeat after me) it doesn’t have a headphone jack.

Compromises

By now it should be apparent that all flagship phones released in 2017 are filled with compromises. That’s not a coincidence.

If you look back at flagships released last year, you’ll be able to spot compromises on each model, too. In fact, every smartphone ever shipped had compromises, and each new smartphone will continue to possess compromises. Even the operating systems—iOS and Android—has major compromises. I mean, it took Apple three years to enable copy+paste on iOS, and Google nine bloody years to learn to restrict background activity to optimise performance.

Take a giant step back, and you’ll see that every product ever built has had compromises built into them. Notice I said “built into them”, as if the compromises were intentional? Well, that’s because they are.

You see, design decisions are compromises. They’re two sides of the same coin.

Every design decision carves out a set of compromises—other features that cannot be implemented, aesthetics that will be adversely affected, ease and/or efficiency of use that will get impacted, etc.

Just like how every action has an equal and opposite reaction, each “positive” design decision necessarily creates a “negative” compromise. Insofar as designs necessarily create compromises, those compromises are very much intentional. (And in the same vein, unintentional compromises are a sign of bad design.)

Want superior, 3D imaging-based facial recognition? Sacrifice the beauty of your all-screen design (iPhone X). Want to ship your phone earlier, and have a beautiful bezel? Make do with sub-par biometric authentication (S8). Want to create a butter-smooth mobile operating system from the get-go? Restrict what it can do—and what others can do with it—till the tech is ready for more (iOS).

We often like to focus on the shapes and shades of a design, to talk about and compare features of products. What’s harder to see, though, is that each design is surrounded by a negative space of compromises:

In other words, it’s impossible to shape a design without also shaping its compromises. This design-compromise two-sided coin, yin-and-yang thing isn’t new, and it isn’t going away.

This year, flagship smartphones might struggle with building edge-to-edge screens with great biometric security without sacrificing aesthetics. In a few years’ time the problem will be solved—but by then we’d want to do even more in an even smaller phone.

So what does this all mean? What’s the takeaway here?

If you’re a designer, it’s this: learn to see design and compromise in the same way physicists had learnt to see electricity and magnetism. Design isn’t just about deciding which features to implement, or which user flows to enhance. It’s simultaneously about which features you have to delay or omit, which users’ needs you’ll need to forgo.

The design process shouldn’t be a story of “We’ve achieved [feature], we’re amazing!” but a more grounded narrative of “In order to implement this feature, we’ve had to sacrifice [compromise]—so [feature] better be worth [compromise].” The latter makes it clear that design isn’t just about pushing forward and gaining new ground, it’s also about managing the compromises that had to be suffered as a result of design decisions.

If you as a designer don’t know what compromises you are introducing to your product, then you need to start keeping track, because design decisions are compromises.

If you’re not a designer, learn to realize that a “no-compromise” product, service, life partner, or whatever only exists in marketing land. This helps you make decisions with greater clarity: it’s not about which product has less compromises, but rather which compromises matter the least to you.

On a less capitalist note, this also helps us become better decision makers in general. When we know that every “feature” necessarily creates an opposite “compromise”, our choices relating to work, relationships, and life in general becomes more clearly defined.

A high-paying, visibly successful career necessarily means that your work life will be highly stressful and life-consuming. A work-from-home job necessarily requires a lot of discipline and determination, if you want to learn and perform as much as your office-bound peers. A career-driven, good-looking partner necessarily means that they are going to neglect you from time to time, and that you’re going to have bouts of insecurity. Every feature is also a compromise.

Thus, in conclusion: Smartphones are not only about their features, but also what they cannot do. Design is not only about design, but also the resulting compromises. Life choices are not only about the merits of each option, they’re also very much about which shortcomings you’re willing to put up with.