Fitbit's head of design on the challenges of building the Ionic smartwatch

Fitbit's Jonah Becker walks us through how the Ionic took shape
Fitbit Ionic's design challenges

Before being tasked with the challenge of heading up the design team for Fitbit's first smartwatch, Jonah Becker was cutting his teeth at HTC helping the Taiwanese company compete with Apple, Samsung and Google's Android phone army to build the most desirable smartphone on the planet.

In his new role as head of design at Fitbit he's faced with some familiar rivals, only this time, he is competing for the space on people's wrist as opposed to the trouser pocket.

We have, of course, spent some time with the Ionic, the smartwatch that Becker has played an integral part in bringing it to life and it's fair to say that that the Blaze-inspired look has divided the team here at Wareable. Becker revealed that the design team behind the Ionic looked to space exploration as a chief influence, but what we're curious to know is whether there was a clear vision in mind for the smartwatch right from the start.

Essential reading: Why Fitbit finally built a smartwatch

"What I was very clear on was how it relates to the existing product family", Becker told us. "What I mean is that I look back at previous Fitbits, particularly the last couple of iterations. I can look at the Flex, Charge, Charge HR and Surge, which is a very close family. You can see a similarity within that line with our smartwatch."

You see these geometric forms in architecture and you also find them in nature

"What you see is a shift to a more geometric design language. If you think about the Alta or Charge 2 you have this hexagonal form. Then you have the Blaze, which has an octagonal form when you look at the frame around the display. What you see in this family is a simple use of geometric forms. You see those types of forms used in architecture and precision tools. You also find them in nature like a honeycomb. I see Ionic as having a relationship with the other products in the family, but also pushing it a step further and pulling in a little bit of a softness, or what we call it: geo-organic."

All square (well, rectangle)

Fitbit on the design challenges of building the Ionic smartwatch

Away from the somewhat flowery design language, what we really wanted to know is why Fitbit decided to follow Apple instead of Samsung or Google's numerous Android Wear partners by opting for a rectangular design over a circular one for its smartwatch debut. It remains one of the biggest design debates; do you embrace a traditional watch look over something drawn from the tech world?

"We definitely had those discussions", said Becker. "I can look at the history of watches and the form is defined by the fact you had a mechanical movement and that movement drives them in a radial path and makes a tremendous amount of sense for telling time.

"When I look at a smartwatch and what it does, like notifications and applications and the fact that pixels are laid out on a grid, it makes more sense to have a rectangular display. You want to understand what type of elements people want but don't want look too far backwards."

From fitness tracker to smartwatch

Fitbit on the design challenges of building the Ionic smartwatch

In the months leading up to the Ionic's arrival, we came across the reports of the issues that Fitbit had apparently faced getting its first smartwatch ready for the masses. From building its app store to finding a music streaming partner, these were just two of the problems faced in production. There were reported problems in the hardware department too, said to largely focus around GPS performance and waterproofing, which we quizzed Becker about.

"There were, of course, challenges" he explained. "For the Ionic, we adopted a process called nano-molding technology or NMT, which fuses metal and plastic and enables us to get elements like antennas and Bluetooth into the body. As a company focused on health, one of our mantras is that you can't compromise on accuracy and so that enables us to do a couple of things. The first is better quality antenna performance. Reducing it to this scale though was a huge challenge and a new challenge for the company so it required a lot of testing to get it right. The other was integrating the new SpO2 [blood oxygenation] sensor and wanting to do a better job of integrating into this type of form factor."

Becker did also refer to the work needed to make the Ionic waterproof, something that Fitbit has openly admitted in the past proved problematic with last year's Fitbit Flex 2, its first waterproof device. It's something we often take for granted, largely because companies like Garmin and Polar have been offering swim-friendly wearables for some years now.

"Water very easily gets into things. Everyone knows that," said Becker. "The challenges with a smartwatch and all of the extra electronic components is that you look at all the places water can ingress. Around the display, the buttons, the sensor on the back. All of these parts that intersect with the main body can have an impact, so of course it was a challenge."

Designs on a fashion-friendly smartwatch

Fitbit on the design challenges of building the Ionic smartwatch

Perhaps one of the most telling aspects of Fitbit's big Ionic reveal was that it shunned the fashion-focused approach it adopted for its Alta and Alta HR activity trackers to make a smartwatch that's all about the fitness. It's hardly shocking when that's where the company's foundations are rooted, but nonetheless, we had anticipated that there might be the potential for a similar kind of collaboration that Apple secured with Hermès for its smartwatch.

Instead, Fitbit has stuck to its sporty guns and will team up with Adidas for a special edition Ionic, which is scheduled to launch in 2018. So could we see a more fashion-friendly version of a Fitbit smartwatch one day that'll pop up at fashion shows like the Alta did?

"Our focus is broadening to health and fitness as a subset of that," Becker explained. "I would say we have always had that more fashion-focused approach but we are going to do a much better job of it in the future.

"In terms of the form factors and fashion, we do still have that with our internal accessories for the Flex 2 and tie-ups with Tory Burch and Public School. We will continue to do our ranges and will still continue these partnerships as well. Philosophically, I don't believe there is one size fits all."

Shop for Fitbit trackers on Amazon

Fitbit Ionic
Fitbit Ionic
Fitbit Charge 2
Fitbit Charge 2
Fitbit Alta HR
Fitbit Alta HR
Fitbit Flex 2
Fitbit Flex 2

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