Behind the scenes: How do you design a notebook?


Interview with ASUS Designer William Liu

For many people, the design of personal objects like a smartphone, tablet or notebook expresses a person’s identity and lifestyle.  But how do our mobile companions get their form, functions and design? William Liu, designer at ASUS, describes his vision and the day-to-day practice.

What does design mean to you?

william_liuWilliam Liu: Design means solving a problem or creating new value for people. Everyone has a different need, and with technology constantly advancing, we have more in our hands with which to create new solutions.

Where does your inspiration come from?

My inspiration comes from many things. Most important of all is to observe people. I could sit in a train station all day, just watching people. I often see people hurrying in and out of the station, checking their phones, talking to each other, reading a book, or holding the hands of their children. In many ways, that’s how the “aha” moments happen: just by trying to be in their shoes, imagining their lifestyles and how amazingly different or similar everyone is.

What are the first steps when you create a notebook?

Notebook products took two directions in the last three or so years: being extremely thin and light or becoming a desktop replacement. The 2-in-1 trend is quite recent with mobile computing being pushed to yet another height. So when I design a notebook product, I think about the usability: how do people use the notebook? Do they separate work from life? Do they need a one-for-all solution or a one-for-each-purpose device?

Describe how you created the ZenBook design. What steps did you follow?

When I started designing the ZENBOOK UX305, the first thing was: “what is ‘enough’ for mobile productivity?” In our fast-paced city life, we no longer have the luxury of sitting in the office cubicle and letting ideas simmer slowly. And if you are like me, who likes to work outside the office, mobility is key. Then keeping everything thin and light is the biggest design challenge.

Being thin and light is easier said than done. Because even though we could minimize the specs since technology is advancing fast enough, we cannot sacrifice the user experience. If we slim down the keyboard, then it is not good enough for each key to give back a push response. Then usability will suffer because the user would constantly wonder if they are typing the right thing, or would want to push the key caps harder. Then the effect would be quite difficult and tiring.

Also, when everything is stripped and compressed to bare thinness, differentiating in terms of design becomes harder. Creating a unique brand image is a designer’s mission, and we have to challenge ourselves to top our competitors in looking our very best and standing out.

What is the process for designing a product in the ASUS Design Center?

01_ux21_sketchThe brief usually includes the 4 steps in our design process and how we intend to fulfill each step.

DISCOVER – understand the context of the request and frame the existing situation as well as the foreseeable future. For example, urbanization being a sustainable megatrend might cause more people to work in big cities and the space within cities to grow scarce, so people need to have more versatile solutions for their daily needs.

DEFINE – from the context understanding, define the right problem(s) to solve. Taking UX305 as an example, our challenge is design to be thin and light in order to satisfy people who always need to work in transit.

DEVELOP – there are many possible solutions to being thin-and-light as well as helping people to be more productive on the move. We could use materials, accessories, hinge design, keyboard design and many factors to prioritize and work within given criteria like price.

DELIVER – throughout the DEVELOP period we have lots to give or take. We need to make choices. Do we want ultra-thinness? If so, then maybe we cannot expect the usability to be top-notch. If we want to have rounded edges for easy holding, then the profile cannot look sleek… DELIVER means finally bringing options together to the initial problem and providing the best-possible results.

What does materiality of the selected materials mean to you?

colorsMaterial is an expression that connects the products to the people who use them everyday, and it has meanings at many different levels.

Material by default holds the components together and makes sure the quality is secure to use. We go through very elaborate tests to make sure all of our products exceed the quality standards.

At the same time, material has the aesthetic potential to speak for the users. If you enjoy the premium look and feel, metal with delicate finishing is probably suitable. If you want to be lively and youthful, then perhaps an unexpected combination of color and materials could make the products very exciting.

How important is haptics?

Like everything we talked about today, haptics is important in two ways: function and aesthetics. Patterns engraved on the lens of a camera are not just there so the fingers can adjust the aperture sizes; they represent PRECISION. Same thing with UX305 or the concentric circle on most of the ZEN devices. The patterns keep the raw piece of aluminum from being easily scratched and nice to hold. At the same time, the shine that emanates from the surface accentuates the materiality of metal.

How important is sustainability?

ux305_scenarioWith sustainability we always need to choose between two conditions: do we want things to last? Or do we want things to be easily recycled? Some people might not see past the relationship between these two and think we could have things that last forever and could still be recycled. No, it’s a choice we have to make. So if we go with making things last, then we work on increasing the lifecycle of any product or think about how to upgrade without a complete replacement. But if we go with the trend in mobile computing to change our phones or notebooks every 2 to 3 years, then we should think harder and deeper about how to recycle components and make ‘just enough’ products.

GREEN ASUS is a set of standards within the company to make sure all our products are friendly to the environment.

In architecture and industrial design we say “form follows function“. Do you agree?

I agree and more. For a mobile notebook, the comfort to hold and the comfort to work are the most important things. We cannot design sharp edges and we cannot sacrifice the keyboard design. Everything else comes second.

They work in a cause-and-effect way. Because we need to work everywhere, the design needs to be compact. Because we need to access all the information fast, we need the lid to be able to quickly open and it has to be strong enough to stay and not flip over. Because we need to create on the go, the keyboard and touch pad need to be really great input devices so users do not need to bring more accessories.

Last but not least, we need to design for quality. Quality is one of the most important things in all things related to design.  If the product does not meet users’ needs or fails all the time, then the creation loses its purpose.