Why Xiaomi’s Smartphone Concept May Not Be for Everyone

It's cool, but maybe not familiar enough

Key Takeaways

  • Xiaomi’s new waterfall display concept offers four curved edges.
  • The device does away with all physical buttons and ports.
  • While pretty, experts feel that most users would go with more familiar device designs.
Person holding Xiaomi's waterfall display smartphone concept on a black background

Xiaomi’s latest smartphone concept looks nice, but ultimately lacks the familiarity and usability we’ve become accustomed to, experts say.

Xiaomi has revealed its first quad-curved waterfall display. The new smartphone concept features an 88-degree curved display that Xiaomi says will let visual interfaces flow over it naturally, like water. Unlike previous phones that have featured a curved display, the unnamed concept from Xiaomi features no ports or physical buttons. Instead, the entire device is made up of this new display.

"It is quite nice from a purely visual standpoint," Andreas Johansson, a UX specialist, told Lifewire via email. "However, usability-wise I can see a few things that might be a problem."

Chasing Waterfalls

In a world where we’ve seen phones that can fold in on themselves like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold2 and the Microsoft Surface Duo, the idea of a portless phone isn’t really that far-fetched, especially with wireless chargers becoming more popular. We also recently saw Xiaomi debut its Mi Air Charge Technology—which charges your phone through the air—so a smartphone that makes use of that tech isn’t that surprising.

With this concept, Xiaomi is completely foregoing the designs of the past and focusing heavily on the "just a screen" form factor we’ve seen in science fiction. To accomplish this, Xiaomi has extended the curved display along the top, bottom, and sides, allowing your content to flow into view as you scroll through applications or unlock your phone.

"It is quite nice from a purely visual standpoint."

According to Xiaomi, this was all made possible thanks to "innovative screen stack design" and a "breakthrough 3D bonding process," which allows the 88-degree quad-curved glass to fit onto a flexible display. Underneath this piece of glass, the company has placed under-display cameras, wireless charging technology, eSim chips, and pressure-sensitive touch sensors.

Xiaomi says these underlying pieces effectively override the need for any physical buttons or ports.

Of course, concepts aren’t really all that special if they’re just rendered images or video. Xiaomi has confirmed to The Verge that the device is real and people within the company have used it. 

Good Intentions

Just because it can be done doesn’t mean that it should be, though. According to Johansson, the lack of any physical buttons on the new Xiaomi concept could leave users feeling lost and out of place when they pick up the device, should it ever make it to a full release.

"It's usually a good idea to have some kind of physical/tactile feedback," Johansson said. "This tends to improve overall usability."

Johansson also mentioned what designers often refer to as affordances, which are essentially the properties of an object that show the user the actions they’re taking. On current smartphones, like the iPhone 11, these affordances come in the form of things like the volume button clicking when you change the sound levels on your phone.

Affordances have evolved over the years, but there are still basics that designers follow when setting out to create new concepts. Bill Gaver, a notable human-computer interaction expert (HCI), in 1991 defined three types of affordances, at least two of which we can connect with today’s smartphone designs.

Perceptible affordances, which are the most obvious types, offer some kind of physical indicator of the action, like a doorknob. You see the knob and you know it does something when you interact with it. Similarly, you see the volume rocker on a phone, you know the buttons have some purpose.

"...usability-wise I can see a few things that might be a problem."

Hidden affordances are interfaces without any obvious visual indicators. With Xiaomi’s conceptual phone, the volume seems to be controlled by an under-display sensor on the left side of the screen. Promotional material seems to indicate that users could simply slide their finger up the edge of the screen to increase the volume. But, since there are no obvious visual clues, users may not understand these mechanics without some trial and error.

According to Johansson, keeping these affordances in mind when designing concepts like Xiaomi’s latest smartphone is important, because it greatly affects the usability of the device. If a device is too complex, then users may be less inclined to go with that particular smartphone versus something more familiar.

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