New T431s Illustrates How ThinkPad Loyalists, Techies and the People Will Define Future Design

Change in ThinkPad design typically evolves rather than making radical moves. Talk to stewards of the brand, David Hill or Aaron Stewart, and each of them will tell you that any tweaks to this hallmarks’ design come only after hours of excruciating and detailed thought. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who says we change for change’s sake.  So when we do, it’s deliberate and for the better. That said, it’s hard to make everyone happy. Any time we make the slightest change, we get reams of comments – some “thank you” and “I love this,” and some, “What are you doing?” and “Don’t mess with it.” We truly appreciate those strong voices because it shows us your passion for technology and ThinkPad. 

To reach the top, products and companies continually reinvent themselves – just look at eBay or Amazon. We’re doing it too by moving from a PC company to a PC+ technology company with new products like smartphones and smartTVs in many countries across the world. To take it back to ThinkPad, we want to retain the right amount of ThinkPad-ness that satisfies our loyal customers who’ve always valued it while modernizing ThinkPad under the influences of consumerization’s focus on simplicity, interoperability and connectedness. We’ve pinpointed that important balance with the new ThinkPad T431s, a laptop that answers the question, with “Yes, businesses you too can have an Ultrabook that’s just as suave as consumer Ultrabooks.”

For insight on the process, we interviewed Corinna Proctor, Aaron Stewart and Jason Parrish – the Lenovo folks who did the research, design and the framework that lead to developing the T431s. The below information came from collective conversations with them.

Combing the World for Input

In our most ambitious research to date, we went out to ThinkPad fans, non-Lenovo customers and young adults/millenials in the U.S., Mexico, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, China, India and Brazil. We even shadowed them in their daily lives, keeping a close eye on how they used their laptops and tablets and questioning them about their needs and their likes/dislikes when it comes to portability, usage scenarios and design. It was a continual process of refinement. Design, test, design test for nine months.

We got feedback from both our ThinkPad and non-ThinkPad users that they wanted new, more modern aesthetics. The wish for more simplicity varied among countries, testing most highly in Japan. Germans, for example, told us that hints of color are ok, valuable feedback that helped us manage modernizing it yet remaining authentic. We found millenials’ needs vary more widely because their working environments are more fluid (working from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection) leading to the greatest convergence of home and work in one device. They also choose technology that personifies them.

We identified the overlaps among the groups and infused that thinking into the ThinkPad T431s. We certainly couldn’t fit everything we learned into this one machine. Rather, the T431s represents the path we’re charting as we begin to integrate more consumer insight into our ThinkPad products, something we think will continue to make ThinkPad relevant to businesses and consumers for the next 20 years.  

What We Learned and Changed

We walked away with key learnings that we’re using to guide our thinking, like making the inside look simpler and modernizing the screen and bezel.  Thin is also in versus providing an abundance of ports. People also told us to enrich the color black and keep experimenting with new types of devices.

Overall, more than 26 aspects of ThinkPad’s visual design changed, but like a Where’s Waldo puzzle, only the most ardent fan could find all of them. Some are obvious, and some are less conspicuous, but it gets easier to see them when you do a head-to-head comparison of the T431s and the previous generation T430s.

Drop Down Hinge and Sans Latch: Some hinges could only tilt back to a certain point, however the T431s now opens 180° to let you lay it flat or use it comfortably in your lap. Nothing material-wise has changed with the hinges, and we kept them visible so you still know strong the laptop is. It meets all of our specifications for durability, including several military specifications. In addition to simplifying the laptop inside, we removed the latches for a cleaner look.

Simplified Keyboard and New Trackpad: We unified the clickpad by integrating the trackpoint buttons into the elegant glass touchpad, making it appear even larger and more streamline. The trackpad now has five buttons which you can customize for Windows 8 gestures via the device driver. There are subtle red lines on the surface indicating the trackpoint buttons. Of course, the red dot remains for all our trackpoint users. We kept the six row island-style keyboard that we introduced with the first generation ThinkPad X1, but we now have direct press multi-media buttons as the primary function over the Function row.  However, we’ve incorporated a Fn lock with LED indicator if you want F1-F12 to be your prime function. We’ve also incorporated several Windows 8 specific actions like settings, search, view and open apps.

Smaller Yard Work: We hid the speakers so you hear them but don’t see them (they live near the drop down hinge). We eliminated some of the blue and red colors we had used on keys, making the keyboard look seamless and clean. We integrated the volume and microphone keys together and changed the placement of the fingerprint reader along the side, placing it up and out of the way of the palmrest. We also enriched the black color we’ve been using for 20 years – we’re calling the new color Graphite Black (with a satin finish).

And lastly, we changed something that’s extremely visible and identifying, the placement of the ThinkPad logo.

Logo Direction: For years, the logo has been displayed oriented towards the user (some viewed this as upside down) and has long been the subject of great debate inside the halls of Lenovo. Ultimately with the other changes we’ve made, we decided now is the right time to reorient the logo so that it’s visible when someone looks at the laptop from the back. At the same time we added a living element to it with a new LED in the logo middle giving it a “heartbeat” of sorts. It’s functional too, showing the PC’s status of on or in sleep.

Like any masterpiece, the ThinkPad T431s is more than the sum of its parts. Its design refinements are only one aspect. From its technical prowess with the latest 3d generation Intel Core processors, lightweight specs and other heavy business features (vPro, docking, onboard VGA and Ethernet ports), it offers  business people a new option for technology inspiring envy that also gets the job done like no other.