Get A Bigger Hammer

This is my weekly blog, originally posted on the blog of my website, Taz.

All images and video are from Smartisan official website

Let’s talk about a small Chinese cell phone company today. On the night of Oct. 18th, it attracted people from 130 cities around the world to watch its new product release online. And it has a funny name, Smartisan, or Chuizi (Hammer), as translated from Chinese.

A triumph of the Internet

While I’m not here today to give you guys a review of this foreign company. What’s impressive is the fact that 500,000 pre-orders of its newly released smartphones have been sold out within minutes after the keynote. It is a triumph of the internet, a total reflection of how exciting the market is in China. One thing I have to mention is that the founder is a great speaker and shares a large fan base in China. As an entrepreneur, he realized something remarkable with this generation of young people in China, the attraction to the Internet and craftsmanship. The people who were born in China after the 80s grew up in a rich soil of materialized society and new technologies. The concept of online marketing and live technologies enable people, even in the most remote cities, to share a special moment with the rest of world together. New media platforms (social medias, live websites, eCommerce) have become a major sources of marketing. Below are all the partners that offered live broadcasts of the release of Smartisan phone as well as a map of local meet-ups for this event.

This generation of Chinese hate the stereotype of shabby Made In China products and have the matching purchase power for something better in quality. Due to the cultural differences, cost and localization problems, international companies always find it hard to fully penetrate the Chinese market. This gives a lot of Chinese companies a crutch to beat the foreign goliaths. Smartisan is one great example of this movement. In this highly diversified consumer products market, localization is never more important than nowadays. More people are buying cell phones based on emotional appeal, rather than fame or cost-benefit reasoning.

A company that survives on UI/UX

It is in their DNA. Though quite strange at the first glance, it does make sense in the competitive market of Android cell phones. Every major company has the equal access to the best hardware in the world. The hardware is simply not the selling point of cell phone companies in recent years unless you’re Apple. So the philosophy becomes: give the consumers the best hardware they can ever get in a certain price range and let the user experience stand out. Most importantly, people have a better measure of user experience than hardware specs. For example, having a battery power increase of 25% does not drive people to change their working cell phones. In fact, some of the new features of Smartisan are quite impressive, and they were able to dance with all the constraints of the hardware. So let’s take look at some problems Smartisan tries to solve and the software solutions it revealed on Oct. 18th.

1. How to speed up the text input on a smartphone

It is impossible to compare the speed of text input between a smartphone and a computer keyboard. With the virtual keyboards on smartphones, the accuracy and speed of text input can never match that of a computer. This problem is due to the difference in size of the two devices and the size of our fingers. Instead, Smartisan partnered with another Chinese phonetic company 讯飞 (iFly). iFly provides a voice input solution with an accuracy of 97% in Mandarin Chinese. What blew me away is that there is no limit of how long voice input can be. Besides the accuracy, it can even insert punctuations depending on the context and most of the time it is correct. This huge improvement in voice processing gives the consumer a great alternative for text input. And I can only say that the accuracy will be nearly perfect in the future.

2. How to edit and process text more efficiently on a smartphone

This is also a tricky question to answer. Because of the limited screen size and imprecision of our fingers, text editing is never the same on smartphones. With these two limiting factors in mind, we may make the screen size a little bigger. However, we would have problems with the effective area that can be reached by our fingers. Since we cannot make our fingers smaller to be more precise either, the breakpoint is how we view the text. What if we contextually pre-process the large chunk of text first. Would that be easier for users to edit? The answer is a definite Yes. And Smartisan made it possible through pure software engineering. The logic behind this idea is remarkable, since we don’t have to move the cursor around between letters when we only want to deal with words. Oh, and they gave it a funny name, the BigBang, like an explosion of letters.

3. How to shorten the steps for every task on a smartphone

This is another problem related to the limited screen size of the smartphones. We cannot multitask or easily switch applications like what we take for granted on a computer. Smartisan’s solution is to use an extra strip of the screen as a shortcut for frequently used applications. In that case, we can just press and drag the files to the destinations. Normally, we would have to click on the files, select, take actions, and then switch to another application. The transition from click-event for each action to hold/drag significantly decreases the number of steps we have to go through. I would say that I’m not that impressed by this feature compared to the previous two. The transition from click to hold/drag seems less intuitive to me. The limitation is that we can only use recommended applications for our choice of actions. Nonetheless, this is a great alternative to what we have right now on the smartphone. And I’d love to see more experiments on user interactions.

So there you have it. Some interesting UI/UX and software engineering solutions from a Chinese startup. No matter what the market reaction would be for this new product, I’m really happy to see more Chinese companies take on the challenge of providing better smartphone UIs. The founder is also extremely passionate about what he is creating, even though everyone laughed at him at the beginning for being a green horn in the tech field. This passage is getting pretty long now and I’d like to end this blog with his favorite quote of motivation.

If at first you don’t succeed, get a bigger hammer
— Alan Lewis

To all the people that continue to chase their dreams!