We’re not anti-technology, we’re just human.

Light Co-Founders Joe Hollier & Kaiwei Tang

Joe comes from an art, design and film making background. He ran a skateboarding company and studio called Five on That. Kai comes from a product design and development background with a focus on human centered design. He has spent 10 years traveling the world bringing 12 mobile phones to life.

We couldn’t help but feel that the last thing we thought the world needed was another app. The Apple Watch was just announced, and there were all of these products and apps coming out left and right all claiming to “make our lives better”. We just couldn’t believe any of it anymore, these products didn’t respect the user or their time. Being more connected couldn’t actually be what we needed to become happier.

We learned the most common metric for success of many of these companies was retention, how many hours a day does the user spend with your product. We are humans, and we are vulnerable. These products are engineered to use our vulnerabilities against us. They are built because we can become addicted to them, but not because we ever needed them.

If how we spend our days is always “connected”, always staring at our screens, that will be how we spend the rest of our lives.

We might scroll for a while, but when we snap out of what feels like a daze, not particularly happy or sad, just kind of tired. Answering a text a message can send anyone into a 20 minute hole without even realizing it.

We studied how other people used their phones, watching their expressions as they scrolled away, and their faces looked blank. Empty. We immediately pull out our phones, it’s become our nervous habit. It was clear that everyone was feeling habitually overwhelmed. They were craving escape. They felt stuck. They spoke of dreams of an opposite life, of living out of a backpack or van, living on a farm, hopping trains, wishing for such extremes…a dream that we were all too familiar with ourselves. We really just needed a break. So why don’t we take those breaks?

The internet lives in our pockets. Our smartphones are computers, but we still bring them everywhere because they are our phones. We don’t even think twice about whether or not to bring our phone with us…because, you know, what if?

We didn’t always have a small computer by our side. In the days of AIM with “away messages” or “signing off”, there was a specific chair and a specific desk, and when you sat in that chair and that desk and listened patiently to the modem sounds connecting, then you could be on the internet. Leaving that chair left the internet behind.

Sherry Turkle, author of Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation, and Founder/Director of MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, argues that our phones are so powerful that they are not just changing what we do, they are actually changing who we are.

We are forgetting the importance of solitude, something we once cherished. Having window seats while traveling, taking a walk alone, maybe with a camera or making art for hours at a time, these important conversations with ourselves are lost to our habit of pulling out our screens. Solitude and boredom are essential to creativity or producing any sort of serious work. We are becoming scared of boredom, scared of solitude, scared of conversations with ourself.

Just the physical presence of the phone as an object on a table in sight, whether or not it rings, will change the course of our thoughts and effect a conversation we are trying to have. The solution had to involve leaving the smart phone at home, a separation from the object itself. Here is a one of our first sketches. The idea was that your smart phone becomes a smart answering machine, filtering only the absolute most important things through to you. It was your phone away from phone.

We needed to test our hypothesis as quick as possible, the idea that people would enjoy disconnecting from the internet. We gave users a flip phone and simulated the call forwarding experience with carrier level dialer codes. We began testing what “going light” would feel like.

Everyone described an initial anxiety, it was a little bit more intense than we all expected. It felt like you were missing something, touching your pockets anxiously. However uncomfortable that feeling might have been, there was always a point where you forget to think about what you might be missing out on and you get lost in the present world around you. It is quite special.

Going to the park alone without her phone on a Saturday was just not something that ever crossed her mind before, described one user. It is simply not encouraged, it’s not instagram-able. We also learned that if you went “light” with friends, that initial anxiety didn’t really happen because you were too distracted enjoying the time together from the beginning to even think about it.

You see, multi tasking is a myth, it is glorified procrastination. It is addictive and it is exhausting. Our attention spans are rapidly decreasing over the last few years and are now less than that of a goldfish. This is why a short break from connectedness is able to have such a profound impact on us. In fact, no one really used the phones at all through out our testing. The value lied in the lack of smartphone, the lack of internet, not in what the phone we were going to make would be capable of doing. The more invisible, the better.

Designed to be used as little as possible.

We took these learnings into our design of the Light Phone. In thinking about the form factor we asked, “What is it that everyone has with them all of the time?” A credit card or ID. There will always be a place for it and it seemed like the most universally invisible form factor.

We went into Canal Plastics to get some credit card shaped plastic blocks cut out to live with the form factor. They were literally white plastic cards that did nothing, and we fell in love with them. It gave us the idea to make the phone look like a blank white card when off, and to try to make the interface light up through the casing. Conceptually it made sense too, if this phone is designed to be used as little as possible, then the fact there is no screen and that it is blank most of the time is perfect.

It also made sense from a hardware perspective. Using touch screen and LEDs would give the phone longer battery life and allow it to be as thin as possible because mechanical buttons would require many other parts that would have added to the thickness of the phone.

We designed the interface to be a second phone, a phone away from your phone. It’s what makes using the Light Phone completely different from a basic flip phone. Flip phones try to do pretty much everything a smartphone does. They have a little html browser, email client, texting, a 2mp camera, and a slew of other not so great features. If you are used to the interface sophistication of modern smart phone operating systems and apps (well sometimes sophisticated) you will find these flip phones incredibly frustrating. They are funny for a second in their nostalgia, but that quickly fades. The Light Phone is the only phone designed to be used as a second phone, to make that experience special.

The right phone for the job.

We see the Light Phone as a supplement, not a replacement. Like how we have different shoes and clothes for different occasions. A carpenter has different tools for specific jobs. There is no tool that will work for every single job, at least not well. Why is the same giant phone that is good for things like reading emails or scrolling on instagram also be the same phone I take with me to the beach?

The Motorola DynaTAC on the cover of Popular Science, July 1973

In 1973 Marty Cooper invented the first cell phone, the Motorola DynaTAC. Aside from the technological breakthrough which was that a call could move across the “cells” of the different towers without dropping a call, there was also a very human centered idea behind the phone. For the first time a phone number would represent a person. Before this a phone number represented a location, like an office or home, but when you place a phone call you usually have someone in mind that you are trying to reach. You can almost think of it as our first usernames. Marty, an amazing, eccentric, wise old man has some thoughts about modern smartphones.

The Light Phone is very intentionally designed for a specific use case. We’ve limited the phone on purpose. There is no texting, apps, or contact book. You can store 10 speed dials, make and receive calls or check the time. You can’t get lost in the phone. We want the experience of going “light” to feel special, and to respect you as the user with every decision we’ve made.

Thank you for your time and attention. We would love your support in considering a pre-order of the phone or sharing of our story. We’re a small team on a grassroots mission to keep a human voice in this crazy world of technology. The Light Phone is our first product, and we will continue to design beautiful objects that respect and empower.

Much Love,
Joe & Kai

You can learn more at thelightphone.com