Thursday, June 24, 2010

Design Fetish and Function Failure

The most devastating comment Don Norman makes about over-design in The Psychology of Everyday Things is that a design is so good "it must have won an award."  The meaning, in context, is that the product looks great but is unusable — it's broken as designed.

Apple and Steve Jobs make a fetish of design.  Their industrial design tradition stresses beauty and  function, especially for casual users and folks who just "want it to work" like my 80-year-old dad.  Kudos.

Apple's new iPhone 4 is a triumph of design over function.  Its slender glass and stainless-steel case has wowed reviewers and fans from the beginning. It's sleek and chic and oh-so-unique.

Apparently it doesn't work very well, too.  The new iPhone dropped communications during Apple's World-Wide Developer's Conference, frustrating even demo-god Mr. Jobs. The problem was blamed on too many wireless signals in the room.

Today (24 June) the phone is being shown to lose signal when merely held "incorrectly":

The problem appears to mystify Apple fans and computer geeks alike.  How did Apple let this one get by?

The Real Problem

My son showed me the above video.  Inspecting the lower-left hand corner of the iPhone 4's case reveals the problem.  When held left-handed, the ball of the thumb covers up a small gap in the stainless-steel band that girds the unit.  This band is Apple's touted integrated antenna.

I'm a software-and-systems guy, not an electrical engineer, but I messed around with radios as a kid.  To anyone who's played with radios, the problem is immediately obvious: touching the gap bridges the antenna.

Antennae work by having a hunk of wire stick one or more ends out.  The free end lets the signal jump from the wire into space, which is why radio antennae are depicted as at right.  Even the goofy tech in Star Wars gets it: recall the antennae that festoon Cloud City's underside in "The Empire Strikes Back".  Their fundamental design saves Luke from plummeting to his death.

Antennae have worked like this since they were first invented by Heinrich Herz in 1888.  On the new iPhone, the user's hand placement appears to couple what look like two antennae on the case, turning them into a closed circuit.  No antenna, no radio signal, and the stylish, sexy iPhone 4 becomes a smaller, less-capable iSlab.

Fixing the Design

If bought already, put a piece of Scotch Tape over the antenna gaps on the case. Wait for someone to make a silicon rubber band that covers the iPhone's antenna/edge. It'll probably retail for $17.95.

Test with people who hold the product in alternate hands.

Put an electrical engineer who has radio experience on the product design team. Steve should be sure his engineer can say "no", then he should listen to him.



30 June 2010 - Apple reportedly is hiring antenna engineers.

2 July 2010 - Apple Admits iPhone 4 Signal Issue, Blames it on Incorrect Signal Display. But Will Software Fix It?

14 July 2010 - Wall Street Journal reports Apple's engineers knew of the problem a year ago, but Steve Jobs forced the design.

14 January 2011 - Computerworld says Apple has redesigned the antenna for Verizon's upcoming roll-out of iPhone service.

9 February 2011 - reports the newly redesigned antenna on the iPhone 4 suffers from "death grip" too.


  1. An update from PC Magazine:,2817,2365650,00.asp

  2. Apple makes bumpers along the lines of what you suggest (30 bucks instead of 18 bucks, tho'). These come in different colors to add some personalization to the phone as well. Perhaps this was all in plan...only The Steve knows for sure.

  3. I suspect Apple knows, since they are actually selling a case (that Michael mentions) this time around, whereas they have previously left that up to 3rd parties. In fact, I think they gave the bumpers out to some of the early line sitters. Pretty lame though. I've always preferred the "naked" iPhone, or perhaps with a decal of some sort. They do have sleek lines that way.

  4. Thanks Michael, Sam. Holy cow! $30 for a rubber band? Has anyone tried fixing this with a clear lacquer, like nail polish? Just lightly coat the stainless steel.

    Apple acknowledges the flaw:

  5. Apple: "You're holding the phone the wrong way."

  6. 29 June - Apple instructs their Geniuses to tell customers that the antenna death grip isn't a problem and that they should buy the $30 rubber band.

  7. 7 Aug - Now the _New York Times_ reports Apple's executive for mobile devices has resigned. See "Executive Leaves After iPhone Trouble"