With Jabra, It’s All About Fit And Comfort
Copenhagen's optimism just might be reflected in Jabra’s headphones.
The whole idea for car engines could apply to Jabra headphones. The concept calls for a device that’s small but powerful, slim yet sturdy. While much of Denmark-based Jabra’s line includes office headsets, the brand’s headphones for sports and professional training are keeping up with trends. Quiddity spoke with Jabra’s Iain Pottie, global director of product design, about tracking sports apparel trends, the competitive consumer space, and 8- to 10-hour performance.
When you talk about the design of your headphones, what’s the first design feature you mention and why?
The answer to that is really easy. We have a unique position as a brand when we’re talking about wireless, true wireless headphones. That's the intimacy, the position the headset has on you as a person. It's one of the most intimate devices you can come across. The most important feature to talk about is the relationship the product has with the person—the comfort and fit aspects. We've done an amazing job at understanding the human ear and placing pieces of plastic in the human ear and seeing how that works for people. You place a lot of emphasis on putting something quite expensive into your ear here, without any sort of tether or reassurance that the device is going to stay in there. If you're jogging on the side of a canal, the last thing you want is (the headphones) to plop out and fall into the water.
How do you take consumer feedback into account when you’re designing?
Consumer input is one of the most important inspirations. It has to be a fundamental part of the brand. We have several channels, whether it's sponsored research, user reviews on websites, or simple technology blogs, where you can argue experts on the subj matter are having opinions on what we do. The people who use our products and the dynamic we have with those users is a really important inspiration for the designers.
"If you're jogging on the side of a canal, the last thing you want is [the headphones] to plop out and fall into the water"
Have consumers asked for features that you as a designer know aren't realistic?
I'm going to be boring and say i'm not aware of a specific feature. Either we’re getting it absolutely right and perfectly spec’d for our users, or I’ve not been on the receiving end. Typically durability is a key worry, with this device. To think it's going to perform from the moment you take it out of the box to the moment you're tired of it and want to buy something new. For products like the Elite Sport, the expectation is that it will survive any activity you indulge in, whether it be running, climbing, cycling, in the gym. How would this device hold up? In terms of something quirky or unusual, that's not something i've heard directly. It’s typically, “make it smaller, make it lighter, make it last longer, make it fit better.”
Where do you get inspiration for new headphone designs from?
It's really all about people. The human body and the privileged position our products take on the human body is a huge inspiration. That dynamic between what we see as being the very ergonomic or human factors aspect of fitting into an ear, fitting over an ear, resting on somebody’s head. It’s often how do you ensure these products are complementary. Maybe not so much jewelry trends, but sporting apparel trends are incredibly strong within the entire industry. The idea that this device has to work beautifully in harmony with lifestyle and apparel is a major part of that.
Then there's the iconic nature of creating something that's recognizable from a brand point of view. For me, understanding how you manifest what you see as being the key aspects of your brand or the key capabilities you have as a company as a key functionality that the product is delivering. How do you manifest these qualities: fit and comfort? How do you manifest a look and feel as a product?
How do you balance aesthetic choices with performance?
I have a very positive attitude to life in general. Lots of people talk about compromise. I tend to talk about optimization. All of the different functions that operate within a company, whether it's the audio guys who are really one of the most important manifestations of our brand. Then you've got the hardware guys, who put together the electronics that go inside the products and help it perform the way we want it to. It can be about the battery, the RF, how Wifi connections are managed like on a phone or computer. For me, working from an optimistic point of view, we’re driving collaboration with all these different functions. That’s a challenge a designer has, working with engineers, on things like: how flexible the rubber is within the context of a human head? For me it's all about collaboration, having a point of view on the end result. It really is about: how do you manage a dynamic of understanding what is the most important aspect of each different functions? We have very specific values: listening, challenging and transforming. You should really use those values as being a way of deciding what are the best choices we can make as a team? Those help you the idea that we are an audio company—audio performance should really trump everything—but it needs to exist within the context of the human ear, around the neck or on the head.
"Lots of people talk about compromise. I tend to talk about optimization"
What’s one thing you wanted to do design-wise but weren’t able to because it negatively affected performance?
It's usually size. The issue of size, simply in an industrial design dynamic, is a little bit unfair. Many of our products are in-ear—and the market is going that way—is that scale has a dramatic effect on the wearability and comfort of the products. We have always loved our products to be a little bit smaller than they want to be. If it's bigger, how do you manipulate surfaces, minimize aspects of that size? It's a little bit like car engines for audio, the bigger the driver, the bigger the audio volumes, generally speaking the better the audio experience the consumer is going to have. But the tradeoff is you don't want some huge device hanging around your head. There is always that mission of making the product as small as possible in a practical way, to increase perception of quality and comfort you get with the device. I'd love them to be smaller, but you don't always get that so designer needs to work a little bit harder.
When you look across the headphone space, where does this headphone fit?
I think we've achieved something extraordinary with the Elite Sport. There is a strength in what we do collaboratively in how the different functions work together to create an extraordinarily capable, competent and desirable product in the Elite Sport.
The consumer space is extraordinarily competitive. Jabra’s successes have been much—in terms of where we are now, the space we fit in is how do we bring the capabilities and qualities levels we expect to deliver in a professional environment, where headsets are an important tool for communication in general (in offices), into the consumer space? How does that dynamic exist currently? A lot of our competitors are so in the professional space or the enterprise space. We want to be the company that bridges the gap between consumer and enterprise.
What specific features make your product easy to use? How about to clean?
We have an incredibly strong user experience in terms of design organization. The dynamic of servicing both the consumer market as well as the enterprise market, gives a wide base of learning a huge variety of consumers. The Elite Sport is a highly specialized, highly capable device. Those environments in which our products exist places demands on us to make sure our devices are very simple. If we expect our product to perform well in the gym or in the commuter space, these products are being used up to 8 or 10 hours a day. They all place specific demands on the hygiene aspect of the intimacy. We make specific choices about the materials we use to make sure the products are performing well in these very challenging environments.
"The Elite Sport is a highly specialized, highly capable device"
Writer & journalist based in NY.