Customising physical products – how far to go with smartphones?

Is “being different” becoming a new differentiator itself?  As websites deliver an increasingly personal experience, can we expect more from physical products? Will the arrival of the Moto X raise the bar in terms of what can be achieved in consumer-customisation, or is it merely a short-term profile-raiser? Will the manufacturers of monolithic plastic slab phones continue to concentrate on black and white, leaving third parties to provide colour through after-market covers? And why can’t phones be designed to survive the real world?Umbrellas

I usually make a point of noticing which phones people use – it’s a habit I’ve developed over many years. Most can be discerned quite quickly even when they are concealed within a protective cover, but the other day I was completely stumped – the woman sitting at the next table to me was using a phone which I couldn’t determine. The soft plastic cover was very badly worn and heavily marked through regular (ab)use. It had some tape on the back, possibly holding it together and it was easily the most damaged cover I have ever seen. Only when I got a glimpse of the display did I recognise it as a white iPhone 5. The phone itself probably cost in the region of £400; the cover £4. 

When Jonathan Ive said in the official iPhone 5 trailer, “What makes iPhone 5 so unique is how it feels in your hand; the materials it’s been made with; the remarkable precision with which it’s been built. Never before have we built a product with this extraordinary level of fit and finish“, I wonder how much thought he was giving to the real world in which those phones would eventually live.

Even if you don’t like Apple products it’s hard not to be impressed by their sleek designs and precision finishes. Other smartphone manufacturers including Nokia, Samsung, HTC and Motorola offer sleek designs too, but why are so many of them completely hidden by low-cost covers? Is it to provide damage protection, to preserve resale value, or to offer a degree of personalisation? Whatever the reason, why do product designers not cater for those needs in the first place? Why should consumers pay for a premium finish if they then have to protect it to survive the challenges of daily use?


Personalising our property is nothing new. Just as we like to decorate office space with personal photos or effects, we personalise pc desktops with wallpapers, photos and a selection of widgets. Personalising our things makes them special, personal to us. Different from the vanilla offering. Uniquely ours.

  • We engrave a name on a pen, not to make it easy to find, but to make it unique. Tablet covers are the latest tech products to do this.
  • Engraving names, slogans and greetings was a popular free service on early iPods – again providing a unique, special feel.
  • Embroidering initials onto shirts does much more than aid recovery when lost. Those initials make each shirt unique, and make the owner feel special as a result.

Generally this level of personalisation can be done quite cost-effectively, and quickly – sometimes even “while you wait” or “while you shop”. Some take longer:

  • Adidas offer a customisation service for their footwear, with finished product being delivered in 3-4 weeks.
  • With its MotoMaker, Motorola will deliver a customised Moto X in 4 days, with the ability to select front, back and accent colours in addition to memory configurations and wallpapers.
  • Cars can be readily configured to the customer’s exact requirements, not only colour and trim, but also the engine and a range of other optional features. Depending on manufacturer, the factory build can range from a few weeks to many months. We’ve come a long way in the hundred years since Henry Ford is alleged to have saidYou can have any colour you want as long as it’s black“.

Online products can be personalised too:

  • Newsfeed content can be easily tailored to the reader with RSS feeds.
  • Web pages are frequently personal, of course, through the use of Cookies and make us feel welcome with recommendations, offers and suggestions.  “You might like…” and “Just for you…” have long been evident on websites such as Amazon and Ocado.

Delivering a personal-feel to an online service is generally easier than doing so with a physical product. But since we’re so accustomed to using online services, there is a danger that we will start to become dissatisfied with vanilla physical products. The challenge for manufacturers is to be able to deliver an adequate level of customisation within a reasonable timescale (ie little or no impact on delivery schedule).


Although protective materials have progressed hugely in the past decade with the development of new polymers and nano-technology, we’re yet to see these materials fully incorporated into the designs from the outset. Materials such as Poron XRD and d3o can be found in third-party accessories from many suppliers, including Incase and Mophie.

  • The Moto X (above) can be customised with a protective “snapcase”. Whilst offering a degree of protection, it almost completely obscures the carefully selected colours and sleek lines of the underlying design.
  • With its JuicePack range of accessories, Mophie provides additional battery capacity and impact protection. This dual benefit comes at the cost of considerable extra bulk but users are likely to see this as small price to pay for the extra protection and battery-life.
  • HTC One has a sleek aluminium body which feels great to hold. Clearly the designers focused heavily on this, and it works. It is hard to put this curved smartphone down – a sure sign that the designers have done a good job. Appealing though the design is, we’re unlikely to see many on the streets because many users will want to protect and personalise with an after-market plastic case, totally disguising its sleek body.

There is clearly a market for products (such as Mophie and Incase) which personalise, protect or personalise and protect. They offer features which can’t possibly be incorporated into every phone, and allow the user to tailor it mechanically for the environment it will face. But is that enough? Why will smartphone designers want to spend so much time on intricate details when their designs will become hidden behind a £10 cover?

In the real world smartphones are subject to potential damage and they need protection. Consumers want to feel special so phones need to be personalisable. With technology advances we can expect future smartphones to incorporate these requirements from the outset. Manufacturers which expect consumers to buy cheap plastic covers are likely to be left behind by those which properly understand real consumer behaviour. The customisable Moto X is likely to remain an interesting concept which will appeal to many. But by not embracing the needs to also protect their phones, consumers may feel that MotoMaker only partly meets their requirements.

What do you think? Please add a comment below. Or subscribe to this blog to automatically receive updates.

Additional reading

  1. Henry Ford –
  2. Nokia Lumia 820 –
  3. No retro –
  4. Adidas customisation –
  5. Mophie JuicePacks for iPhone 5 –
  6. Official iPhone 5 trailer –
  7. Moto X stands out in Sea of Phone Sameness –

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