The Design Priority

Why the iPhone went big, and why it was a long time coming.

The larger iPhones bring two things to mind when I think about what changed: these are going to be great to use, but are going to be terrible to carry.

So I wondered why Apple might make this change. It occurs to me that designing a phone is hard when it comes to the need to carry the device, as the push and pull between carrying and using seems opposed. The two main things a phone must accomplish are:

  1. Be easy to carry everywhere (since we very much carry our phones everywhere).
  2. Be very easy to use (no matter what the use is, strictly a phone, or an iPhone).

The first is really easy to achieve: design small phones with few sharp angles and you are set. (Small both as footprint and volume.) The second item is also very easy to achieve: great software, fast hardware, and a great screen to do everything on and you are set.

Both design goals on their own are easy to accomplish, but both together is exceedingly hard to accomplish.

The smaller the phone the less useable, but the bigger the phone the less carryable. This is not a blanket rule as the small iPhone 4 and 5 models both were/are highly useable, but they are likely not as useable as the larger iPhone 6 models.

The iPhone 6 and 6 plus

I believe Apple has flipped priorities from carryability to usability. The iPhone 1-5 were designed by putting carrying at the top of the priority list and now with iPhone 6, usability is at the top of the list. And so things changed physically with the device.

Carry First Phone

Apple initially solved usability on a small phone with multi-touch, and has since added to it with predictive text, Siri, and many other features. But that was always having usability play second fiddle to carryability.

The designs kind of had to be this way too, because the first priorities Apple chose is how Apple made the iPhone a must own for many people. Imagine the iPhone 6+ launched as the first iPhone. Very fast and powerful, but it’s huge. Every smartphone before the iPhone was huge to carry or worthless to use. Belt clips were common. Now Apple introduces a phenomenal tool, but nearly impossible to carry as people are not even remotely used to carry a phone that large — we spent a couple of decades making phones as small as possible.

But the original iPhone changed that perception of what is an acceptable size. Now you could have power and smaller than a normal smartphone, phone. Now it was easy to carry a smartphone and Android followed suit. The biggest hurdle, Apple rightly saw, to adoption of the smartphone was to make it something people wanted to carry. Both because it is easy to carry (first) and because it is easy to use (second).

This got a smartphone in hundreds of millions of pockets. Which forced these users to see the value in carrying a smartphone.

A smartphone is now a must own device for most people.

A Usability First Device

Because we carry smartphones everyday, and everywhere, we now also see how much easier a phone would be if it was a bit bigger (the iPad helped with this, but mostly Android). Apple sees this too and thus we get bigger phones.

Usability is at the top of the list and carryability is second fiddle now, Android got there first, but Apple paved the way for it through user adoption of the platform. That’s why there is a bump for the camera: to try to get the phone small enough in your pocket that you will still carry it, even though doing so may feel less ideal than the last version of the iPhone.

We are at a point that if a smartphone is better to use, the only standard for carryability seems to be that (like how usability suffered for the sake of small) the phone fit in an average jean pocket. It’s our pockets suffering for the sake of a better phone to use.

And I suspect both iPhone 6 models are barely tolerable in size for those who buy them, but after we use them for a while we will be happy to have a better device to use and forget all about how annoying they are to carry. I hate carrying car keys, but it’s pretty useful to have them on me.

And thus we are now ok with larger phone sizes even though, yes, they will suck slightly more to carry. The trade off is that we get a better phone to use.


It was a simple function of teaching the market. Apple came into a market where smartphones were seen as tools for business people and ‘always working’ set of people. Apple knew that they had to change that stigma to show the entire phone market just why a smartphone is so great. They did that by making a great useable phone, but more so they did that by making a phone which was easy to carry and which you wanted to be seen with.

That’s history now. Now the user base sees these phones as must own, you’re crazy if you don’t own, devices. And Apple sees this too. The competition for pocket-share is now in usability of the devices and the greatest way to make these devices more useable is simply to make the screens bigger for the very seem reasons larger computer screens lend themselves to more productive work. ((Not always, I know.))

So we have 4.7″ and 5.5″ models and they will be annoying to carry in our pockets. But I bet we are going to love using them.

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