Companies make a big effort to show off when it comes to their latest product innovations. In the automotive industry this may be around concept cars; in defence and energy, virtual reality simulation is all the rage; and in silicon foundries it may be pushing the limits of miniaturisation to maintain the march of Moore’s Law.
The creation of futuristic products not only provides PR and sales opportunities, but also, in their creation, teams are formed, internal cultures developed and heroes created.
Those wins are important, but the major benefit to companies is that as a consequence of the positive noise around the new product, their other products appear more desirable.
We call this the ‘halo effect’: a ‘cognitive bias where one trait influences how you feel about other, unrelated traits.’
Thin, thinner, thinnest
This article is a special case study about a product we designed, engineered and developed for Dell: the ultra-thin Adamo XPS laptop.
Today, we take slender computing for granted, but the Adamo was truly ground breaking – the first ever sub-10mm notebook. It’s a remarkable story of outsourcing, ingenuity and the creation of a ‘halo’ with a world-leading brand.
The back-story is that competitor Apple had unveiled their MacBook Air, the world’s thinnest notebook. It measured an unprecedented 4.064mm at its thinnest point with a maximum height of 19.304mm.
Dell’s SVPs of Consumer Products and Engineering, along with Michael Dell himself, had concluded that their in-house teams could not create a halo product under 14mm thick in a timely manner.
However, I had already architected a 10mm product with an amazing electronic engineer (Hugh Brogan, who had worked for Motorola, Philips and Sendo) – and we knew we could go thinner.
Win or fail alone
We visited Dell at their HQ, and there was real tension at the kick-off! The SVP of Engineering knew that given more resources, time and budget he could get there. But Apple were ahead, so focus, speed to market, learnings from the mobile industry, and our unwavering belief were our key advantages.
At the meeting, there was a full-scale model on the table – and the first words spoken were, “What you see is unobtainium”. But there was also recognition that we might be able to do this – pull the rabbit out of the hat.
Unusually, we were instructed to keep our client’s designers at arm’s length and not liaise with in-house teams. Dell didn’t want us contaminated with their thinking, or the ‘not invented here’ syndrome. We were going to win or fail alone.
Below, you can read some of the key principles we embraced to create a very special, industry-leading, award-winning product. CNet reviewed it: “As a work of technological art… a real conversation-starter”.
Dell chose to produce the Adamo in limited numbers – keeping it ultra high-end – and what it provided was indeed a halo; not only to consumers, but also to Dell’s engineering and design teams, inspiring them to convert this new thinking into future generations of products.
Design Case Study: Creating the world’s first sub-10mm thin notebook
1. Understanding the business problem/technical challenges
The business problem was very easily defined: create a halo – a 9.9mm-thin leadership product. The technology challenge(s) weren’t so easy.
The first weeks were spent reviewing competitive products, running product tear downs, mapping key component KPI’s (with a focus on thinness and performance) and understanding breakthrough technologies.
What product performance/attributes would be needed in two years, just to be on par with the best? Our goal was to be at least 20% better.
We mapped every key component/product attribute. First, we examined the history of the components. Then we considered the current BOM (bill of materials). The key here was that if we knew the product roadmap for each of our components/vendors then we could understand where they might be in two years.
Engaging the vendor ecosystem was vital, and Michael Dell asking key vendors to work directly with us was part of the magic. What we asked was simple – accelerate your tech roadmaps. We had to pay a premium, but without leadership technology there’s no leadership product.
2. Build a virtual expert team
The Brewery London Team generated the initial product and envelope architectures, while Hugh’s team created the electronic and component architectures.
We rapidly appointed a series of exceptional engineering, electronic, acoustic and project management resources from around the globe.
We had given ourselves four months to prove (or disprove) the design hypothesis and set about producing three working prototypes.
We arrived at a presentation for Michael and SVPs with three 9.9mm prototypes that worked. Or they did until we got into the presentation – two failed / broke in transit. But one actually worked, ran successfully and ‘unobtainium’ became ‘obtainium’.
3. Prioritise alternatives
Now the really detailed work commenced. Foxconn were appointed manufacturing partner. The team, now including Dell, had to produce the ‘recipe to bake the cake’. This involved specifying each and every component and performance specification.
We split our design tasks using a series of frameworks:
- See – HD display, HD camera, trackpad
- Hear – audio, software, wireless headsets
- Do – computing engine, hard drive, OCR software, wireless, trackpad, keyboard, batteries, switches
- Connect – wireless USB, cellular WWAN, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, power, physical connection.
The remaining engineering details: materials, finishes, labelling, graphics, regional customisation and test regimes all had to be specified, designed, and captured in one BOM. I still have the halo contract book we handed over to Dell and Foxconn – a 400-page bible of our learnings, the trade-offs required and design decisions – the recipe to bake the cake.
4. Key learnings
The XPS Adamo was launched to great acclaim and we won a host of design and engineering awards, but few know the real back-story.
We did something very special, which delivered a breakthrough – and created a halo. We literally ‘removed the air’ from of the product and knocked MacBook Air off its pedestal for a while.
However, all halos eventually lose their shine, and designers always needs to stay ahead and think the unthinkable. Beyond our 9.9mm halo we conceptualised a remarkable 6.9mm product – but that’s a story for another day.