When Amazon (AMZN) released its new phone last week, one of the most notable features was the use of four small cameras on the display to create a 3D effect. Making such a feature seemed like an odd thing for Amazon to do. Creating the display required building special headgear for testing, developing cameras with an unusually wide field of view, and making an infrared sensor system that could tell where users’ heads were even if they used the phone in total darkness. All of this to create an effect that has been a complete flop on television, or, if you prefer, to make a better version of a minor feature of the new iPhones.
But there was no way that Lab 126, Amazon’s hardware division, was going to leave the feature out of the phone, says Lowell Goss, the lab’s former director of user experience. That’s because Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos had become obsessed with it. Catering to Bezos’s fixations was an occupational hazard for the people who worked at the lab, according to Goss. “He has a tendency to latch onto a fringe feature and get very excited about that,” he says. “Adding 3D to that phone delayed it by years. The question I would have is, is it a core part of the user experience?”
There’s nothing unusual about design in tech being driven by obsessive executives, of course. Steve Jobs’s demands for perfection with the iPhone led to one of the most celebrated devices in history and raised Jobs to supernatural status in Silicon Valley. Marissa Mayer famously insisted that Google test 41 different shades of blue for the Google toolbar and gather data on which one led to the most clicks. But Bezos isn’t known to possess either Jobs’s eye or Google’s (GOOG) zeal for data. Lab 126 operates largely on his whims.
The results have been mixed. Designers are hard-pressed to find any distinctive aesthetic thread running through the company’s products. “None of these objects have those subtle magical details that elevate a simple form into something else,” Gadi Amit of NewDealDesign told me last week before the Fire Phone was released. “The execution is not there.” Amazon doesn’t release information about the sales of its hardware products.
Goss’s main project was Fire TV, which Amazon released in April. He said the team met with Bezos every week or two. Their instructions were to create something that was nearly identical to Roku’s line of Internet television devices—although Bezos never used the company’s name in the lab. Designers working on both the hardware and software side of Amazon’s television efforts developed ambitious designs. Goss’s team made some 3D features that would have mirrored what was eventually released on the phone. Bezos rejected these out of hand.
With Fire TV, Bezos soon fixated on voice controls. The voice controls weren’t exactly a unique feature, but they ended up becoming a major part of the publicity surrounding the final device. Fire TV was generally well-received, but Amazon soon began selling it bundled with an Amazon tablet at a deep discount, perhaps a sign that sales needed a boost.
Lab 126′s designers have become increasingly risk-averse, says Goss, because of what he refers to as the “Jeff filter.” The result is devices that function well and are well-attuned to Amazon’s business objectives, but don’t attempt to turn users on in the way that Apple (AAPL), Samsung, or HTC hope to do. Given that Amazon didn’t try to lure customers away with price, this doesn’t bode well for the company’s hardware business.
“I think that Amazon is a challenging place to work as a designer, because there’s only one product manager,” says Goss. “That’s Jeff, and he’s not a design guy.”