Belkin has been part of the tech landscape from the very dawn of the home computing boom back in the early ‘80s.
Some 35 years later and the Belkin name is synonymous with well crafted, keenly priced accessories for phones and wearables, while its sub-brand Linksys specialises in devices to improve broadband connectivity around the home.
But latterly Belkin has become a fixture in homes too, with the arrival of its WeMo range, offering everything from smart plugs to dimmers and light switches.
We caught up with Belkin VP of Design Oliver Seil to see exactly what goes into state-of-the-art accessory designs. Along the way we tapped him up for some insights into how he marries function with aesthetics and how the future of smartphone accessories is looking.
What is your area of expertise within design and how did you end up in your role? Please outline your role and main responsibilities within Belkin.
As VP of Design, I lead Industrial Design and User Experience at Belkin International (that’s the Belkin, Linksys and WeMo brands), which means I am deeply involved in each product’s development, from inception to launch.
So when you touch a Belkin product, my team has likely created it.
I am fortunate to work with a deeply talented and passionate group of design experts who make the large portfolio of things we produce delightfully simple to use, and a pleasure to own.
We invest a lot of resources and dedication to ensure that our products function flawlessly, and live up to our own high expectations for aesthetics and usability.
The ID/UX team determines how our products work, what they look like, what they’re made of, and what kind of package they should come in.
When it comes to products relying heavily on software experiences, especially on the Linksys and WeMo side of the business, our team is responsible for the user interaction and graphic user interface provided by our mobile apps.
We frequently invite users to come to our in-house research lab to make sure that what we build actually works well and solves needs intuitively. We also support a variety of Retail Experience design projects around the globe, where we get involved whenever our products are tangibly displayed in retail stores.
As to my personal history, I was born and raised in Germany, where I started off as a tool-and-die maker. I am an alumnus of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California and have been working with Belkin since 2000, when I was hired as the first staff Industrial Designer in the newly formed Innovation Design Group, started by Ernesto Quinteros (who is now Chief Design Officer at Johnson & Johnson).
How do you balance aesthetics versus practicality and performance in Belkin products?
Although we are proud that over the years, we’ve built a reputation for products with refined design, it is function and usability that take priority, always.
So, before we decide on an aesthetic direction, we first dig deeply into research to understand and resolve all of the mechanical and technical issues at hand.
We study how people use their mobile technology, how the situation and environment might affect the user’s needs and how we might be able to improve their lives with intelligent design choices.
As these things come together, we develop and evolve the product’s form, colours, textures and tactile elements to make our products delightful and enjoyable to live with for years.
This usually involves many rounds of rapid prototyping, model construction and functional testing, which we handle in our in-house lab in Playa Vista.
What would you say sets Belkin apart in the accessories space?
Our goal is to create products that are a joy to own and use. We are a passionate bunch of designers and engineers who care deeply about people and put the quality of the experience above all else.
We want to make people feel smart. This means we take responsibility to sort out all the challenging parts of usability and setup for our users so they don’t have to.
We pair this with a deep dedication and commitment to world class engineering and manufacturing that permeates everything we do and create.
So, what makes us special is that we have not focused on just good design, or just solid engineering. We do it all.
Which Belkin product would you put forward as an example of design innovation and why?
Our brand new Wireless Charging Dock for Apple Watch + iPhone is a great example.
We are immensely proud of what we’ve created here for iPhone and Apple Watch users.
The product is packed with the highest quality circuitry, vetted by rigorous functional testing, and I personally think it’s drop dead gorgeous. Maybe, from an aesthetic standpoint, it’s my favourite product in our history.
We wanted to create a product that would bring an elevated style to the nightstand, where we know most users prefer to share their mobile devices overnight.
So we took design cues from the home environment rather than from the world of consumer electronics. Today, people see their devices as part of themselves, we are so close to them around the clock.
So, instead of an accessory to the phone and watch, we created a beautiful object that we hope its owner will be proud to display in the home.
All the technical details should not play a role in the user’s mind - it just works intuitively and charges their watch and phone without need to fumble with connectors or cables.
What is the key behind building successful partner relationships that help Belkin build products for phones that have not yet launched?
All device manufacturers prefer to partner with companies who can match their needs for technical expertise and responsive collaboration.
We work hard to earn trust, through years of dedication and commitment to mutual success.
Our founder and CEO Chet Pipkin built a cable that connected an Apple IIc to a printer in the early 80s, which set off a long history of our dedication to that partner, for example.
Of course, we’ve built a world class development team that can deliver competently against often very challenging technical and logistical requirements in tight time frames.
It’s challenging but also very rewarding for us as design professionals to be part of product development that is connected to devices with a global reach.
What is the average length of time between developing an idea and finalising a product (and launching it into markets)?
Most of our products take between six and twelve months to come to life.
Sometimes it may take longer, for example when the product has system of components or a retail experience research aspect attached to it (like our screen protection application system).
What are your thoughts on the current state and the future of accessory design in the smartphone space? Are there any trends you predict?
The USB-C standard is taking a bit longer to establish than many have predicted, but it will become more and more prevalent as the universal charging and connector standard for accessory devices (USB-Micro-B will fade away over time).
Of course, wireless charging is quickly becoming a massive convenience trend in the hospitality space - you’ll see chargers pop up in restaurants and cafes. More powerful wireless charging means we might be charging laptops this way through work desks, for example.
We will see more Augmented Reality headgear appear that will offer us new and exciting ways to interact with our mobile devices.
And Natural Voice will continue to become more important in the smart audio space, where we’ll soon assume that most loudspeakers will be connected to our favorite voice assistants.