In the tech world, the future comes fast. Companies thrive or die based on their ability to build that future.
This is the mission of our UX Lab team—to anticipate products and paradigms years in advance. We call it “looking around corners.” It’s how we collaborated with teams from around Amazon to create the Echo Show, Amazon’s first Echo device with a screen.
By the time customers were unboxing Echo Show, we were already thinking about the next device: How can we design something even more lovable? More affordable? Smaller and designed to fit anywhere in the home?
Size was key. We wanted the device to be something people could use in home offices and bedrooms. But the smaller you make something, the bigger the design challenge. If it’s smaller, can it still deliver a great experience? Stepping back even more: what’s the best form and functionality for customers at this size? Can we create something special by moving away from conventional rectangular screens?
Paradigms are hard to fight. And when it comes to rectangular touchscreens, the paradigm is pretty much set. If it looks like a phone, people will tend to use it like a phone, while the whole point of multi-modal is to enable and encourage interaction variety.
We had a choice: stick with the established paradigm, or build our own.
Fresh, design-led thinking was the key. We holed up for days. Weeks. Months. We made prototypes in all shapes and sizes. Rectangles, circles, even squares.
It wasn’t until we started building software prototypes that we realized just how blank of a canvas it was.
But we kept coming back to circular designs with a touchscreen. A circle felt fresh and exciting. A perfect way to add touch as a supplement to a smaller, voice-forward device with a screen. It was a blank canvas, from a design viewpoint. And it wasn’t until we started building software prototypes that we realized just how blank of a canvas it was.
Failure is a necessary part of design. For every groundbreaking product, dozens of prototypes end up in the trash. But failure can be fun. It leads to insights. We had prototypes that overheated and prototypes that were top-heavy and tipped over when you touched them. And with each failure a valuable new lesson was learned.
Starting at the start
Los Angeles is a city driven by style. A place where aesthetics are just as important as performance. What better place to get honest feedback, not just on functionality, but on whether our designs look and feel cool in the home?
We chose 20 Amazon employees in L.A., people who were completely new to the product. For a month, they lived with a variety of prototypes with different, smaller form factors. And their feedback told us we were on the right track—the circular device with the 2.5” touchscreen felt best. It was the design that made people stop and go, “Oh, what’s that?”
With a rectangular device, a lot of UX elements are straight-forward. Text is left-justified. The scrubber at the bottom of videos is linear. So, from a design perspective, a circle was extremely freeing. We got to re-imagine everything. We got to revel in the form factor and adapt rectangular UI patterns into fresh circular interfaces.
We got to invent and simplify the experience to make a device that’s not just useful, but lovable—with interactions that add personality...
We could center text. Design a curved scrubber. Find interesting ways to crop in on videos and images so users get the most important content. We got to invent and simplify the experience to make a device that’s not just useful, but lovable—with interactions that add unique personality to the smaller Echo Spot.
There’s a moment of pure joy that comes with having your design approved by leadership. It’s validating and empowering. But for Echo Spot, that moment faded fast. We’d done our jobs so well that leadership didn’t just want our design—they wanted it shipped in time for the holidays, which were right around the corner.
Hit the ground running doesn’t begin to describe how fast we kicked into gear and started turning our final prototype into the device everyone knows as Echo Spot. It went from a design-led initiative to an all-hands sprint almost overnight—one that spanned the globe.
The effort involved engineers in Boston, Seattle, and California. Industrial designers from Amazon’s Lab 126 crafted Echo Spot into an object of desire with manufacturing teams in Asia. Interaction designers, visual designers, voice designers, and production designers came together to bring the experience to life.
There are more than 120 million households in America. When you’re heads-down at work, it’s easy to forget that you’re designing for someone’s kitchen. Bedroom. Home office. There’s something magical about making a product that will be in millions of homes across the globe. And when those products launch to enthusiastic press and great customer reviews like Echo Spot did, the feeling is magnified.
All of this made Echo Spot a pivotal moment—not just for us, but for Amazon itself. It showed how our design-forward leadership principle of Invent & Simplify translates in the real world. And how a small team can look around corners to see the future.
Be sure to watch the video above and stay tuned for more product stories...