Who says the router can’t be sexy?

Technology vendors have often been on the cutting-edge of technology innovation, but the same can’t always be said of their design. Manufacturers have more often been concerned about what’s inside the box, devoting less time and resources to the look and feel of the box itself.

Some years ago, Linksys by Cisco found itself in that situation. Long a solid engineering company and a market leader in the wireless router space, its designs were functional at best and its competitors were launching a play for their market share with bold and innovative new designs.

To help change the company culture and to make design a priority, the company hired Chris Landy, a former design executive with companies such as Polaroid, Hewlett Packard and Digital Equipment Corp. Now senior executive director, worldwide design & experience within the Cisco consumer business group based in Irvine, Calif., Landy recently had a conversation with CDN about the design revolution, and evolution, at Linksys.

CDN: Was a conscious decision made by Linksys to get serious about design?

Chris Landry: The decision to change was indeed very conscious. There were a lot of changes going on around us with respect to our competition. Companies such as Belkin, Netgear and D-Link were all investing in design. We weren’t investing in design. We had 48 per cent and were the market leaders, but we were successful despite design. They brought in a new leader and CEO, and the goal was to bring design into the company because it wasn’t a core competency. My role was pretty singular: take control, shake things up, and being to drive design as a core competency within a company that was fairly engineering-centric.

It was painful at first. We had to take all our products worldwide and do a visual audit. Every product, device, piece of collateral and packaging was staged in a large room and we did tours for employees, the board and senior executives. I wanted people to see the magnitude of just how bad things were.

We couldn’t do it all at once so we went selectively after the core router business, aiming to raise the design bar within the core router business and add a level of simplicity to the design. Our traditional products looked almost jeep-like, they were very utilitarian with lots of antennas. We focus-grouped the old design and we got hammered.

CDN: You were still the market leader, though, so was the design really a major factor?

Landry: If we were the market leader with a design that’s dated and visually challenged, where could we take the brand if we improved the design? There was a lot of movement around us from a competitive landscape where, if we didn’t bring design in as a core compentecy we’d be behind the curve, and it’d be too late.

We built an internal design organization, with staff in the U.S. and Denmark. The new (router) design was a major change. For us to eliminate the external antennas was a very painful exercise from an engineering perspective because they’d always done it that way. There was major concern if we could still get the signal integrity, and we co-developed a verion with and without it so we could make sure before it went into production.

CDN: Is it almost a psychological design thing too, where even if antenna-less is just as effective, external antennas just fell more effective in consumer minds?

Landry: There was a lot of angst around if we take the antennas off consumers may have the expectation you need antennas for good signal strength. We went back and focused-grouped that, and it was an expectation but it was also felt we’re the leader in this space so if anyone can do it, we can. And consumers have embraced it. I’m sure there’s a segment that won’t look at it. We thought it could be a negative, but that hasn’t been the case.

CDN: What’s the philosophy behind the new design? What are the goals, and how do they carry across the product line?

Landry: We wanted a smaller footprint, more stylish, more elegant. The traditional life of the router was buried in the closet or on the floor, but we’re finding a lifestyle change beginning to emerge where its not always buried anymore. It’s in kitchens, dens, living rooms.

There was a risk we were beginning to be concerned about, that there would be a perception that people would view us as dated, that we’d fallen asleep at the wheel, which in fact we hadn’t done. We wanted to be a game-changer, to take our brand and elevate it.

There’s somewhat of a visual DNA (across the product line). We’re doing quite a bit with surfaces and finishes, colour, high glass and low gloss. We gave some automotive styling gestures on some of the surfaces. The router in some aspects is very high gloss like the hood of a car. We want to tie into a visual queue that suggest when you see these products they’re family related. It’s a challenge when you’re trying to design a family of products that are very different.

CDN: How deeply ingrained is design now in the Linksys product development process? Where along the line does design get involved?

Landry: There are some programs where engineering or marketing comes to us with a concept in hand and ask us to collaborate with us on design. In that case they might have some preliminary ideas, they might have this antenna technology or hard drive or a specific marketing goal. So it’s not unusual for us to work frequently: collaborative, not throwing a box over the wall to us.

In the old days design was always applied, like a bumper sticker. It was an afterthought: I’ve got this box and the designers meet to make it look food. That doesn’t work. We’ve now got integrated design. (The engineers) don’t need to understand it, they just need to know they need it.

CDN: Are we going to start seeing more emphasis on design on the enterprise side of the house?

Landry: The Cisco phone set I’m on right now is a very highly-designed console, and there is quite a bit of attention paid to the enterprise side. If you’re talking about a switch you might find in a data centre, the design might not be the same as the IP phone. It’s going to be different than the consumer space.

CDN: What’s the next step in design for Linksys? Could the personalization trend began by vendors such as Dell some to this space?

Landry: I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. But the challenge is very similar to what Apple went through with coloued iMacs. The challenge is how you manage those colour combinations at retail so you’re not stick with the burden of ones that don’t sell. We’d have to manage that very tightly.

We could give you a choice of four colours and monitor how they’re moving at retail, and then go from four to two because two are moving at a rapid pace and two aren’t. It will also be impacted by where you live in the world, because the colours in the U.S. wouldn’t move in Europe.

I’m not ruling it out, but it’s not something we’re working on.

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Jeff Jedras
Jeff Jedras
A veteran technology and business journalist, Jeff Jedras began his career in technology journalism in the late 1990s, covering the booming (and later busting) Ottawa technology sector for Silicon Valley North and the Ottawa Business Journal, as well as everything from municipal politics to real estate. He later covered the technology scene in Vancouver before joining IT World Canada in Toronto in 2005, covering enterprise IT for ComputerWorld Canada. He would go on to cover the channel as an assistant editor with CDN. His writing has appeared in the Vancouver Sun, the Ottawa Citizen and a wide range of industry trade publications.

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