A successful Kickstarter billing itself as “the ultimate Internet Connected Electronics Kit,” Sam by Sam Labs aimed to be an electronics kit that made rolling your own devices for the Internet of Things as easy as snapping together a few bricks. But while it rose almost $200,000 by the time crowdfunding came to close, Sam wasn’t nearly as newbie-friendly or as intuitive as it wanted to be: the software UI was convoluted, and the Sam pieces themselves looked intimidatingly techy.
Enter Map, a London-based design consultancy who had previously consulted on the Kano DIY computer assembly kit. Their job was to take an assemblage of sensors, buttons and circuit boards and make it as friendly and welcoming as a box of Lego.
“We were approached after their Kickstarter campaign, because Sam was struggling to find this correlation between the technology they had created and their desire to make something friendly to everyone,” says Scott Barthwick, a designer and associate at Map. “They had invented these lovely little objects that you could combine in amazing ways, but they weren’t friendly yet.”
The first challenge facing Map was to make the actual Sam pieces look more friendly. Sam pieces were little more than exposed circuits, sensors, and buttons, albeit modular ones. The hardware was finished, limiting Map’s options. To make the Sam toolkit feel more toy-like than pieces of PCM, Map designed simple silicone jackets to wrap each piece in. Not only do the jackets introduce a little bit of Big Hero 6 softness to the Sam toolkit, but they silicone also helps create a spongy layer that can protect the pieces from damage.
Although Pentagram did Sam’s graphic and branding design, Map also helped design the retail packaging for Sam. Since there are many types of Sam kits available, varying in size and complexity, Map designed the boxes around a dichotomy of squares. The largest Family kit is a double-deckered square, the Family kit is a single-storied square, the Make kit is half a square, and so on. Each package also breaks down into a suggested project. For example, the packaging for the Learn kit can be transformed into a cardboard chassis for a simple robot, comprised of Sam sensors.
The bulk of Map’s design work, though, was focused around the app UI. On Kickstarter, a major selling point of Sam was the ease with which any collection of modules could be programmed. Map spent the better part of six months helping refine this experience, introducing isometric representations of each piece so that programming a new Sam project was as easy as dragging and dropping modules on top of each other.
After missing their Kickstarter delivery date by a few months, Sam kits have now shipped to supporters, and are also available for purchase online, starting at $139. As for Map, if their experience working on Sam has any takeaways for designers, it’s how much of an impact good design can have on a product, even late in the game. “We would have loved to have been involved from the beginning, but it just wasn’t possible,” Barthwick says. But look at the finished product, and you’d never guess they weren’t involved from the start.