Co.Design

8 Design Crimes In Amazon’s New Fire Phone

Jeff Bezos claims that Amazon obsesses over the smallest of details. If so, here are eight details that must be driving the company crazy.

On Wednesday, Amazon announced their long-rumored Fire Phone. You could call it their response to the iPhone, loaded with impressive technology that can track your face in total darkness or identify over 100 million items when you aim the phone’s camera their way. Plus Amazon will store an unlimited number of photos you take in the cloud. Remarkable.

But while Amazon so often nails the user experience--remember when they released a humble eBook reader called the Kindle that changed the world?--the Fire Phone is loaded with gimmicks, flawed designs, and just some outright tacky stuff.

Here are the details that drove us crazy.

1. This Dial Pad Thing
We’re pretty sure that this is just an icon teaser for your actual phone, but even still, what is going on here? It’s like someone thought, “you know what’s a great idea, we do the whole skeuomorphic thing, and replace the ‘1’ in our dial pad with an old school phone.” And everyone applauded. And then somebody spotted that the 4 was missing, so they deleted every contact who had a 4 in their number in Jeff Bezos’s address book so he wouldn’t notice.

2. Autoscrolling Books



You ever read a novel on your phone? A lot of us have. And it’s even possible, in these instances, for your thumb to grow tired of flicking pages. In response, Amazon released a feature that lets you autoscroll text like a player piano burning into your corneas...urging you to read faster...we said FASTER...YOU’RE GOING TO FINISH MOBY DICK ON YOUR LUNCH BREAK SO PUT THAT BACONATOR DOWN AND FOCUS.

3. Dual Stereo Speakers (On A 5-inch Device)
Amazon isn’t the lone offender on this one, but they’d like you to know that the Fire Phone has dual-stereo speakers with Dolby Digital plus surround. Because nothing fills your soundscape like the equivalent of a pair of headphones glued inside a smartphone chassis. Hey honey, no need to go see a movie tonight. No no, don’t you remember? I bought the Amazon Fire Phone with dual-stereo speakers and Dolby Digital plus surround. We’re all set.

4. A 3-D Wallpaper From Lost

Amazon can create incredible, “parallax” effects--allowing you to tilt your phone, and actually make it appear like there’s a little 3-D world inside. So to show this off, they created this jungle scene for your lock screen. A jungle. Also some 1993-era 3-D rendering of Egypt. It’s like when your friend bought that 3-D TV, and they were so proud of it, and you wore glasses over at his place while you watched Avatar even though you didn’t like Avatar in the theaters, and then he’s like “wasn’t that great?” and you agree to be nice, and then he asks if you want to watch it again next weekend because he has no other 3-D movies, so you throw your phone in the nearest pool and move away.

5. Superfluous Drop Shadows
When you chat with people, the little chat bubbles are hard-edged rectangles. But in case it wasn’t clear that they were hard-edged rectangles, somebody added a drop shadow--an extra bit of pizazz and gee whiz 3-D. We're not just being snarky about how great flat design is here, either. The drop shadows are a tool to add clarity to an image by distinguishing it from a backdrop. That's simply not necessary when solid-colored rectangles sit on an all-white background.

6. A Hardwired Button To Sell You Stuff



The Fire Phone costs $200 with a contract that commits you to spending thousands of dollars. And there’s a button on the side for a service called Firefly. That button’s sole purpose is to expedite the process of scanning items, via camera, to look them up on Amazon, to sell you items through Amazon. You're paying for this button so that you can pay for more things. This feature is the biggest con since the money clip.

7. Seriously, A Hardwired Button To Sell You Stuff
We’re not done with that button just yet. The other problem is, it’s really just a button that launches a camera. They didn't reinvent the wheel as much as they repurposed it. So every time you scan an object, you’re really pulling out your phone, aiming it just right, doing that horrible wrist angle/maneuver that makes taking smartphone pictures such a pain, and then sending it to the cloud. Yes it's a more realized version of their Flow app, but their earlier attempt at this same idea--the Dash--was designed to be held, not like an awkward smartphone camera, but as a comfortable, wrist-aligned flashlight.

8. A Browser Icon That Resembles The World Cup Soccer Ball



Now, we’re not saying this isn’t timely, but why does the Fire Phone’s browser icon look like the World Cup soccer ball?

Yet In All Fairness…



It’s worth pointing out that, while Amazon made some hideous missteps with the Fire Phone, they have taken on a challenge of incredible proportions. Firefly--for however capitalistically motivated it may be, however flawed its UX will likely prove in daily use--is an attempt to bridge the gap between the analog world and the digital one. The Fire Phone can recognize the objects, goods, music, and art around you. That’s an astounding feat, and as we consider how phones will work 5, 10, and 20 years into the future, this context of the physical world will only play a larger role into informing experiences that matter more to us. It’s silly that our iPhones can only see objects connected by Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, isn’t it, when so little of the world has been, or ever will be, wired for our internet consumption?

[Photo by Alice Truong For Fast Company]

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11 Comments

  • faezal.yunus

    C'mon! The drop shadow looks cool, even if you discount this phone's stress on 3D. Two distinct sound channels are better at creating stereo sound separation—just listen to an HTC One in horizontal mode to know why; don't forget that many human faces (children, especially) have ears that are just five inches apart; one ear alone can track separate sound channels, but two are definitely better—I can bet you don't complain about a second ear. Eyeball tracking for auto-scroll was cracked by Samsung a long time ago; not many people use it, but it's sophisticated nonetheless, and may be a boon for some people with disabled digits (I know a war veteran with a blown up thumb). Agreed, it's far from the sophistication of an Apple or HTC, but let's applaud the new things, especially, the way it binds selling into the platform.

  • My Samsung Galaxy S4 has the auto scrolling feature, it actually detects your eyes and scrolls the text. I turned it off.

    This story is just criticism for the sake of criticism, "hideous missteps" really?

  • How is the audio a 'design crime?' The exxagerated claims of the marketing are worthy of criticism, but the audio design itself really can't be called a flaw, since it will be better than most other phones available.

  • Elizabeth Doolittle

    Surround sound requires a minimum of five speakers all positioned correctly with respect to your ears. Gimmick!

    Frequencies below 100Hz requires a baffle in order that the sound waves does not leak over device. Gimmick!

    Hi-fi on a small device is an oxymoron.

  • Amenda Klassen

    I'm actually excited about the autoscroll and the hardwired button to sell stuff. If the autoscroll was based on eyetracking or you could set the speed - I think that it's okay. Maybe you could tap the page to "pause" and "play". The button is great because I'm quite busy, and shopping is a huge time killer for me.

    The drop shadows in the chat would drive me nuts. Not necessary!

  • Surprised you didn't mention those Pencil thin tap-targets all over the UI (eg. changing volume settings, alarms, etc). Remember tap targets? They were meant to be the size of, you know, your finger!

    Then Apple came out with the Podcasts v1 app and everything went to shit.
    Behold (http://www.tapscape.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/podcasts-1.0-audio.jpg)

    Suddenly it was okay (!!) to give the user about 3 pixels of height with which to scrub through a song. They went from 44 pixels to single digits!

    Amazon has taken that horrifically bad idea and ran with it (note: it's entirely possible that Apple doesn't really want you to scrub through playlists... they'd rather you just skip along at 15s intervals).

  • I'm glad that there are writers out there who identify the silliness in professional design and call them out, especially with humor. This is a well written and entertaining article that keeps it real.