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Elusive OnePlus founder Pete Lau talks “burdenless” design and the death of the notch

The founder of the Chinese phone maker which has earned a well-earned reputation for cool with its stylish and price-conscious smartphones, gives a rare interview.

Elusive OnePlus founder Pete Lau talks “burdenless” design and the death of the notch
OnePlus CEO Pete Lau [Photo: PUNIT PARANJPE/AFP/Getty Images]

The modus operandi of five-year-old Chinese phone maker OnePlus has always been to sell premium-quality Android phones for hundreds of dollars less than the top-of-the-line Samsung and Apple phones. It also sells its phones direct to consumers, and has relied heavily on word of mouth (and word-of-reviewer) for its marketing. It seems to be working out. The Shenzhen, China-based company is on the sixth iteration of its debut offering, and became profitable last year after reporting more than $1 billion in revenue.

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OnePlus founder Pete Lau does very few interviews with Western media, partly because his main language is Chinese. He prefers to talk when OnePlus’s other cofounder, Carl Pei, is with him to help translate. I met with Lau at the Illy Coffee in downtown San Francisco on the day before Apple’s big event in September , so smartphones were on my mind, and smartphones (and, lately, TVs) are always on Lau’s mind.

Below is most of our hourlong conversation. Lau spoke through a translator. The text has been edited for clarity and brevity.

OnePlus’s latest release, the OnePlus 6, is a big shiny black bar of a device. The display is 6.3 inches, just a bit smaller than the new iPhone Xs Max. Unlike earlier models, the sides of the OnePlus 6 are now glass. The phone comes in one size only, with an option of Midnight Black (glossy glass) or a matte finish.

Fast Company: What drives the design of OnePlus phones? What types of design motifs are used? What type of reaction is the design trying to elicit in the user?

Pete Lau: This is my absolute favorite question . . . I can talk all day.

Most of my time is spent on product development, on the product side. Our approach is to create a “burdenless” user experience. We’ve created that term to describe exactly what we want to evoke in the user. What drives burdenless are three principles. One is maintaining an approach to minimalism, keeping the experience as minimal and clean as possible.

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The second is efficiency. That is, keeping the design as highly effective and highly efficient as possible. What I think that ultimately creates in the user is a light and relaxing feeling of experience. The device is there to deliver upon your needs when you need it, and in a way that you expect and want, and it’s not there bothering you or interrupting you otherwise.

[OnePlus phones have long included a physical alert slider switch that turns off notifications from the phone when you don’t want them.]

The ideal device places some focus on thinness and, with that, creating that ideal in-hand feel. That in-hand feel and its thickness are incredibly important to us.

We have observed a number of other devices in the market that are, in design terms, essentially bricks. They have corners and sides that are not well-rounded or thought through. And even the bottom of the device is a total drop-off. Lightness and thinness are very much a core principle of design for us.

In terms of software, what you expect is an experience that isn’t choppy or laggy and that doesn’t freeze in any way, because all those unexpected speeds, or slowness, or choppiness, create a feeling of burden for the user.

When we look at hardware, software, or design it all goes back to this principle of creating an experience that’s burdenless, and the user ultimately finding the experience of using the device to be light and freeing.

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So, to do this there are so many stories that can be told, and they’re all focused on details. A lot of these can seem insignificant, but a lot of these are details that drive toward that experience.

Pete Lau [Photo: Mark Sullivan]
And looking at this Midnight Black version we have here, in creating this texture on the back of the device we actually went through dozens and dozens of iterations of the back cover as well as the curvature to get it just right. This increased the device cost over $3 on each device to create this effect, but we see it as worthwhile. It can be hard to have a concept of what $3 means, but in a space it is a very significant cost because there are phones out there that don’t even earn $3.

For us, going back to our principles, we cannot sacrifice on these details for the sake of costs. We make sure we get the product right, and then we look at the cost of the product and what the price of the product should be. We know for many others it can be the other way around, letting cost drive what the ultimate product design will be, but for us it can never be that way.

FC: Apple makes a substantial margin on each phone. To what extent is that a function of really good marketing and advertising, or is it just good technology, good design?

PL: From my perspective this is absolutely due to product excellence. There are plenty of people who say Apple isn’t a good value for the money, but consumers are forever smartest. They have a reason for spending whatever amount of money it is on the products they buy.

Going back to these textural effects, and the overall design look and feel, they might see it as being worth $10 or manyfold that amount, for creating that effect. So all invested costs in the device components need to be evaluated according to what value they’re ultimately driving to the end user. What pain points are they solving?

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Why do some brands seem to struggle so much? They seem to face this circumstance where they say “this product isn’t selling.” They can’t even make $50 on the device or whatever it is, $20, so [they] need to keep lowering the price and playing this price game so they continue to eliminate features and functions, and they continue to make compromises. Ultimately [they’re in] this downward spiral of cheapening the product, worsening the product, worsening the overall user experience, and reducing the confidence that they have in delivering.

As an example, when you look at what we have done in creating the fastest and smoothest device, how can you really put a value on that?

[The OnePlus people aren’t the only ones saying this. Forbes‘s Ben Sin, for example, is in full-throated agreement. Sin says the OnePlus 6 loads apps faster than the iPhone X.]

Ultimately it goes back to wanting to deliver the ultimate value for users, and putting the company on a trajectory that is a positive cycle, pushing boundaries and creating products of greater and greater excellence, rather than that negative downward spiral.

FC: We expect Apple to announce a large 6.5-inch screen iPhone. It seems like people keep wanting larger and larger phones. Is there a limit to that?

PL: The trend of larger and larger screens is definitely a correct observation and something we’ve seen in the industry and certainly something we’ve observed since the OnePlus 1. At the time of the One Plus 1 we put a 5.5-inch screen in the device and people said there wasn’t a device [that big] in North America or Europe and that it was too big. But we’ve found that users like larger screens because it creates a better user experience in terms of browsing the internet and doing work on the device.

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There is certainly a limit to the size of devices. Devices are carried on the person so there’s a limit there. For example . . . our device is currently at a width of 7.5 centimeters, and we don’t feel it should get any larger. But of course with the existence of the notch on the device, and the chin, all of that is area that in an ideal world can be turned into screen.

So all of that is area that can be fought for from a technology perspective in terms of improving the screen technology and creating a full-screen device. For us, fighting for even .01 or .05 millimeters off that chin or off the notch is an effort we’re willing to put forth, even though most consumers won’t know about or observe that difference.

FC: But obviously Apple has already been able to achieve an edge-to-edge display with the iPhone X.

PL: In terms of the flexible OLED display on the iPhone, it’s a different technology–it’s an OLED technology that wraps around the bottom of the device and therefore eliminates the chin entirely. But for us, our available technology, and our screen technology, is not absolutely there yet–we still have to have a slight chin at the bottom of the device for the fitting of the entire components at the bottom. But we will continue to push down and make it smaller and then eventually wrap around the entire chin of the device.

FC: Do you feel that smartphones have become a commodity product? Is there still room to innovate in meaningful ways? Or is your strategy mainly to offer a phone with premium-grade components at a lower price?

PL: The reality of the matter is that smartphones are far from perfect. We still have a long way to go in realizing all the demands you would have and what could improve.

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There is actually a definite space to try to improve on what exists and improve the overall user experience. One example there is looking at screens. The trend in screens has changed, as have the barriers to creating what we see as a better or closer-to-perfect screen.

One example of that is the notch, and the existence of the notch on many devices. Within three years we may have a whole vast range of devices that are entirely screen on the front face, and there is a front-facing camera that’s underneath the screen. This is a definite trend that everyone is trying to push for.

[Lau also confirmed to me that the upcoming OnePlus 6T will have a fingerprint sensor built under the glass on the front bottom of the phone so that no display space is lost to a physical button.]

There’s charging speed. I would imagine that you, like us, are never satisfied with charging speed, and there’s always improvement that can be done in this area.

So in the examples I’ve given I hope you get that my focus is not on innovation for innovation’s sake but for the sake of the consumer, and for removing friction.

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The new OnePlus 6T should be showing up in the market in October.

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