Behind Boxee: How to Design Sexy Consumer Electronics
His projects have included MIT Media Labs’ OLPC “Hundred Dollar Laptop,” work for multi-national clients such as Nike, LG, Samsung, Nvidia, Microsoft and Logitech and product design for Boxee, OOMA, and ASTRO Gaming.
Now running his own product design consultancy in South Beach, Florida called OBJECT, we caught up with Alvarez to talk design, development and all things consumer technology.
Q&A With Michel Alvarez, Award-Winning Product Designer and Principal at OBJECT
How did you come to specialize in the product design of consumer electronics?
Being an avid tech junkie, I’ve always had a personal interest in consumer electronics, their impact on design aesthetics, and their effects on bettering the human experience. During my time at ASTRO Studios, a design consultancy in San Francisco, I helped gain a strong pulse on the tech world and became more of an expert in visualizing emerging technologies into tangible product experiences.
It was the influence of Silicon Valley mixed with the raw energy and creativity found in the Bay Area that fueled my design work.
Although I gained experience working with more established brands such as Nike, Samsung and Microsoft, it was actually my work with smaller companies such as Boxee, OOMA and ASTRO Gaming that helped truly solidify my expertise in this space.
The eye-catching, asymmetric design of the Boxee Box by D-Link was incredibly fresh and well-received when it launched in 2010, flying in the face of the conventional stacking design. Can you tell us how this came about?
ASTRO was extremely lucky to collaborate with such an open-minded and creative team like the one at Boxee. They truly understood the importance of being bold and consistent with their brand and they backed our vision of this product from day one. We were challenged with the task of developing their flagship device that delivers Boxee’s digital media experience to the living room.
As designers, we’re always looking for opportunities to make an impact in the product world and their brand’s irreverence, ingenuity and emerging technology inspired us to create something radical and unique. It was our goal to evoke a stronger emotional reaction in comparison to competitors’ set top box designs, and we accomplished this by challenging conventional thinking and engaging the user’s curiosity even after the product is turned off. The “emerging cube,” as we called it, didn’t present the user with a traditional front face.
Instead it delivered a functional aspect of the product experience on each side of the device, and it sat at the apex of home media stacks with nothing ever sitting on top of it. At the end we were successful at capturing the whimsical nature of this emerging brand, while still delivering a design that was memorable and respected as a high-end consumer electronic.
What special challenges does the design of consumer electronics bring?
Designing for the consumer electronics space brings many challenges. One of the most common is developing product individuality in a saturated market. There are many companies developing “me too” products to compete directly with competitors and they tend to distance themselves from delivering products that reinforce their brand equity. These companies invest tons of money trying to sell their products by improving technical features and constantly lose touch with their consumer’s actual needs.
Maintaining a level of consistency within a line of products helps bring confidence in the brand. Our role as designers often extends beyond the look of the product, and we try to help companies understand the importance of maintaining their individuality.
Another challenge is designers are usually limited by the size and shape of the internal components for the device they’re designing.
It is very rare to develop a product from the ground up, and these technological constraints are very challenging when trying to make a product slimmer and stand out from the competition. These hard constraints push designers to think outside of the box by bringing a different approach to the manufacturing process, the method of assembly, and the use of unique material choices. Achieving that individualized product experience is important and having those limitations really do drive you to solve those problems more creatively.
As well as designing from the ground up, you’ve “refreshed” products, such as the Astro Gaming MixAmp. How does the design process differ in this instance?
When we refreshed ASTRO Gaming’s MixAmp, the brand was growing quickly and the team at ASTRO was developing future products that would build on the success of the A40 Audio System. The MixAmp, being such an important core product in delivering the ASTRO Gaming experience, was to be bundled also with the emerging A30 headset and needed to be updated to complement the design of both headsets. This gave us the opportunity to improve on the original design in a much shorter development scope driven by the release date of the headset.
Designing the product from the ground up was not an option, so we decided to focus our design efforts on redesigning the front face of the device which offered the most visual and tactile impact to consumers. Leveraging most of the parts from the original design, we began to explore different ways of designing and constructing the main dials, looked at the effects of varying the material and finishes, and simplified the overall graphic treatment on the device. At the end we delivered a product that felt smarter and high-end helping to progress the ASTRO Gaming MixAmp into the next phase of its existence.
Can you give us an example of a product in which you’ve brought a different approach to the manufacturing process/the method of assembly and/or the use of unique material choices?
During my time at ASTRO, I was one of several designers that worked with Nike’s Digital Sport group, helping them bring to life their Nike+ FuelBand. Although I can’t take credit for the way it was manufactured, I believe FuelBand is a great example of a program that I was a part of which leveraged the right materials with a unique manufacturing processes to achieve a slim, water-resistant design.
The device’s main body is made of an elastomeric (TPE) exterior that is molded right over the flexible internals creating a sealed core with no airspace in between. This unique manufacturing approach helps make the product solid and feel like you’re wearing a thin band on your wrist.
What advice do you have for aspiring product designers?
Stay passionate, learn from your surroundings, and don’t let overconfidence hinder your success.
Product images courtesy of ASTRO Studios