What A Portable Speaker Can Teach Us About Designing Heirlooms

In an era of glass fragility, the UE Boom is a speaker designed with human nature at heart.

Apple products are beautiful. But humans weren’t born to genuflect in front of obsidian obelisks, to spend all day slamming their fleshy fingers against unrelenting surfaces, ever-afraid to scratch or drop their tool of choice.

In this sense, the Ultimate Ears Boom ($200) isn’t just a neat portable Bluetooth speaker that you can buy instead of a Jambox. It’s what designers at Nonobject call "the musical instrument of the 21st century," a fascinating case study of where we can take electronics when we remember what humans value beyond a spec sheet.

"Consumer electronics have a short lifecycle. You buy something at the store—a camera or speakers—you exit the store, and immediately it’s devalued because you know something else is coming around," explains founder Branko Lukic (who in a previous life has done stints at both Frog and Ideo). "But musical instruments are magical. You don’t buy a musical instrument expecting it to go obsolete. If you have a guitar on the floor, it enhances the room."

"The key question to me was: Could that emotional relevance and musical relevance be achieved in a portable speaker? Could I design something that would positively portray youth, and the wear and tear of life without being tossed?"

In building the Boom, moving beyond conventional materials was step one. Instead of metal, plastic, and glass, the Boom shell is crafted from rubber and fabric—two durable substances that feel fantastic against human skin. They also, almost subconsciously, imply a level or durability to the product when you hold it—a durability that’s never actually advertised in Boom’s marketing or aesthetics.

"I don’t necessarily say that you can throw this object, and it can fall on the ground and it won’t break. And it doesn't look like an REI shoe for climbing Everest," Lukic says. "At the end of the day, the product is incredibly robust, but I left that for you to discover."

For instance, you can rinse the Boom if you spill BBQ sauce on it, or (potentially) even resuscitate it after falling into white water rapids. This mentality—that something is just built well, with unadvertised integrity—is almost an anachronistic approach in modern-day electronics. But we’d never think twice about essential durability were we buying a solid oak table, or maybe one of Lukic’s other favorite metaphors, a fine leather jacket. And that durability creates a new level of temporal value to the consumer (beyond the mere fact that you won’t have to replace it).

"Leather jackets become even better with age," he continues. "There are only a few products today that can reflect who you are. Your own jacket is your own jacket. Even if someone else tries your jacket—like your girlfriend—they will feel like it’s for someone else. There’s an imprint of a human in it."

The human imprint—or life’s patina—represents another important component in Lukic’s pursuit of an heirloom-status portable speaker. The rubber and fabric are made to wear in a personalized way, so that after a year of use, a biker who keeps the Boom in their water bottle holder will have a much different Boom than a surfer who routinely tosses it in the sand. And in this sense, someone’s Boom actually becomes a Dorian Grayesque portrait of their lifestyle.

Now I still believe that humans have an intrinsic preference to revere certain materials over others. If the Boom were crafted from leather and wood rather than fabric and rubber, we’d all be more likely to see its parallels with a fine, timeless object like a violin rather than something you’d snag at Best Buy. But the fact that Nonobject is exploring deep-seated value within the fairly traditional material framework of consumer electronics is, in a way, more fascinating than if they had defaulted to using cherry wood and lambskin.

Without tapping any one tradition or cliché, the Boom demonstrates that there are more valuable components to design than thinner and lighter. Though the other question becomes, how do you convey that value to a consumer who’s browsing Amazon to find something thinner and lighter?

Buy one here.

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  • Richard Banks

    There's some confusion here between durability and sentimentality toward an object. They are not the same thing. Objects can't just become heirlooms because they last. You can't design for heirloom-ness.

    FWIW the broken chain in this object is really with the digital infrastructure, not with the material choices. Is Bluetooth durable? Can I trust it to last 40+ years as a standard? It was barely around a decade ago, so I doubt I can. Does this object have value if it can't play music? Will generations of phones in the future still have apps that allow me to control it? Once the functionality starts to buckle and fail, so does the value in the objects, good materials or not.

    You can read my book, The Future of Looking Back, if you're interested in the subject of digital legacy :-)


    To be fair to Lukic, he doesn't mention heirlooms, the title of this article does. Lukic is talking about trying to encourage people to like things enough so they might not be thrown away as quickly. The problem is, since apps are part of the experience his object is tied to the lifecycle of the phone, and isn't independent.

  • Christian Ramsey

    This approach to design, is what we should be going towards. Designers should have to think about perpetuating the product, modern day products have little worth while businesses try to cheapen materials for the absolute lowest cost, I see that changing and that being a competitive advantage in the future, I write more about your blog and my response here. https://medium.com/better-huma...

  • cassette_walkman

    I sure looks cool, in fact it's beautiful and I love the soft-shell idea. 

    But let me get this straight: It "portrays" youth and the wear and tear of life but they won't say that it actually will withstand the wear and tear of life. A durability that's suggested but not actually claimed. Right.  So this "unadvertised integrity" means if it breaks when you drop it (even bump it perhaps), or it fizzles out when you get it damp (or breathe on it perhaps) then it's your own fault 'cause they never said it would.

    "What humans value beyond a spec sheet" should also be countered by "what humans value from a spec sheet". I'll dive with a Seiko watch BECAUSE of what it says on the spec sheet, not with a fashioned alternative becasue it 'looks' like a dive watch and 'suggests' it might be durable. Spec sheets are for a reason.

    And the article uses the simile of the oak table and it's implied durability and longevity. That's because the oak table IS durable and will last a long time. But we actually have a name for furniture that 'suggests' but doesn't 'promise'.

    It's called veneer.

  • Matt Perry

    Well put. There are many items that claim much more than they deliver especially in the realm of durability. The Bluetooth speaker market is becoming inundated with claims of water resistance - this speaker included. The person that digs deeper into the water resistance claim for this speaker - you will have to dig - will find it is: 
    IPX4 RATED:Ingress Protection Rating – Liquid – Level 4: Water Resistant Acoustic Skin
     This means simply the following:"The equipment has been splashed from all angles for at least 5 minutes at water pressure of 80–100 kN/m^2.  Basically, this can handle being rained on, but if you drop it in a stream or overboard, there’s a good chance your gear won’t be working for a while, if ever."