I just designed a custom Moto X, and I’m terrified of what it says about me

For years, we’ve been stuck with whatever cell phone color manufacturers and wireless carriers decide to dump on us. Usually, it’s black. Sometimes, it’s gray; lately, white. And once in a while, another color. But mostly black. Cell phones love to be black. Today, I got my first chance to design a smartphone that wasn’t black. Thanks to the new Moto Maker, I could create a phone that’s uniquely Jeff – totally me. But figuring out what colors really define “me” sent me down a rabbit hole of doubt and self loathing. I never thought Moto Maker would be a measure of my mental health.

The Moto Maker is one of the chief reasons you’d want Motorola’s latest flagship phone, the Moto X (read our Moto X review here). It’s a custom website where anyone can order one of the phones in more colors and configurations than the smartphone world (or almost any consumer electronics device) has ever seen – more than 2,000 of them, in fact. 

There are 18 back colors, 7 accent colors, 2 front colors (black or white), 16GB or 32GB of memory for file storage, 16 wallpapers, 2 cases in a variety of colors, 2 charger colors (black or white), and a bunch of Sol Republic headphones to boot. You can also write a custom message on the back of the phone and another that will appear under the Motorola Logo every time you boot it up.

Sounds cool, right? It is. It’s very cool, and the fact that every Moto X is manufactured in Ft. Worth, Texas is even cooler. This is the first smartphone made in America.

The idea here is something John Renaldi, the Director of Moto Maker, attributed to a particularly successful Swedish furniture retailer. “There’s a concept called the Ikea effect,” he told us. “The Harvard Business Review put it out. And the Ikea effect says that if you have a hand in creating something, your affinity for that product goes through the roof. It’s this idea that labor creates love.”

Really, John? Because I just finished four hours on Moto Maker, and I don’t feel love or affinity – I feel like I don’t even know who I am anymore. 

Motorola Moto X Moto Maker screenshot 14

The site is designed to make the process of ordering a custom phone simple and painless, and the interface couldn’t be easier to use. You start out on a page with a big teal Moto X, an explanation of what you’re about to do, and one button: Get Started. Once you hit that, you’re off.

Moto X in Spearmint green

The rest of the process can happen in 30 seconds, if you know what you want. Sadly, I did not know what I wanted – not in the least. But I started anyway. I began by changing the back color of my phone. You can choose between “Cool” colors (masculine), “Neutral” colors like black and white, or “Warm” colors, which is code for feminine hues like purple, “blush,” and pink.

My first problem was immediate. I wasn’t a huge fan of most of these colors. I had been thinking about the phone I wanted and had hoped for a nice green (maybe a Spartan green). But the only green available is “Spearmint,” which could be called “Ecto Cooler” because it’s colored like Slimer from Ghostbusters. And I wanted a textured back, but the textured coatings only come on the black or white backs. If you want a green accent color (the color of the buttons and ring around the camera), it’s not available either. 

The current color choices are more suited for a rave or laser tag arena than an everyday phone.

Moto Maker gives you a taste for what it’s like to have complete control over your phone’s look, but stops short of giving it to you. This is, I was told, by design. John Renaldi explained to me a few weeks ago that the interface was designed to avoid the “Paradox of Choice,” which is a book about how, if you give people too many choices to make, they end up being less happy. This is why there aren’t a ton of options right now. Earlier test versions of Moto Maker had tons of choices, but users didn’t like it. “By curating these colors, we saw that anxiety go away, and we saw them actually click around more and try out different combinations,” explained Renaldi. Well, sure but … what if I don’t want a pet Slimer for a phone?

He’s right about the clicking around thing, though. The interface, much like NikeID’s vaunted online customization tool, it’s so simple and easy-to-use that I found myself whiling away minutes I was supposed to be working, constructing any number of silly color combinations. It’s just that every phone I created looked like it belonged at a rave or that laser tag arena from HIMYM. Apparently, I break the Paradox of Choice because I wanted more choice. Then again, NikeID crushes it, and if the endless parade of early MySpace-era color configurations that I see on the feet of New York City’s Nike customers is any indication, Motorola has settled on the coolest color palette around. 

Renaldi backs that up. He told me that all of the colors were extensively tested and picked based on the feedback of real people trying out Moto Maker while being monitored by eye-tracking software. “We had a huge palette of colors. We loaded them up, showing anywhere from 7 to 30 colors [to testers] and then we measured the ones that resonated best across gender groups and target market profiles and demographics. So we settled on the 18 colors that had the biggest impact for us.”

So, in the spirit of remaining hip and engaging with the youth, I tried out every color combination I could. Nothing was off the table. At one point I had a Rasberry phone with yellow highlights. I tried Barney colors, Spider-Man colors, U of M colors, everything and anything to find a combination that screamed “Jeff.” Sadly, the combinations I kept coming back to were safe, familiar. I was admiring a phone that was white on front and black on the back (with a kevlar texture) with blue accents when it occurred to me: If Digital Trends had a phone, that’s what it would look like. But how could I give in and order such a phone? There are 15 black and white phones on my desk. When given the freedom to break out of my monochromatic confines, is the best I can muster a simple blue accent? It bugged me.

Motorola Moto X Moto Maker screenshot 9

Motorola executives warned me this would happen, too. In their research, they found that women tended to veer toward crazy, fun colors but men tended to choose safe, more neutral colors, with a nice accent. But why? Does my phone really have to follow the rules of a suit and tie?

At least part of the problem is the role our phones play in our day-to-day lives. Though I could buy a bright shirt, I rarely have to wear it, but the thought of having too crazy a phone scared me, mostly because a phone seems like such a permanent purchase. This is a device that will, in a way, define a small part of me every time I use it for two years. People will see me reading on it, texting on it, pressing it to my face and talking on it … and they will be judging me. What? Like you don’t?

I hope my Moto X screams: “I’m Jeff, and I like to party, but not too much.”

But the other problem is the paradox of the Paradox of Choice. By limiting my options, Motorola was supposed to save me from my own anxiety, but it seemed the opposite was happening. I was this close to finding the perfect phone somewhere in the pile of 2,000 choices, but somehow kept missing by a shade here or a hue there. 

At this point, it’s only fair to acknowledge how much of a production nightmare Motorola gave itself with its Moto Maker innovation. Every time the Motorola team wants to add a new color, it has to figure out how to produce that color back or accent and integrate it into the assembly line in Ft. Worth. It had to completely rework the entire way a cell phone factory operates to offer the number of customized phones it does, and deliver them in four days. It’s one of the coolest computing innovations since companies like Dell began letting regular folks custom design their PCs in the 90s. 

Moto Maker Moto X Spearmint with blue

Maybe Renaldi was just using “The Paradox of Choice” to throw me off the scent while Motorola dials in such a challenging production process. After all, the company has already tipped its hand about more colors, textures, and materials – like wood, for example – that will be introduced in the months following launch. 

Motorola deserves huge credit for introducing the idea of customization to a category that’s never had it before. If the Moto X doesn’t sell you with how comfortable it is to hold, its impressive specs, and it’s unique Google Now innovations, the Moto Maker options may well be the thing that convinces you to switch phones. 

In the end, I compromised. I refused to conform to Renaldi’s research that insisted I would go with the bland black phone, so I was forced settle on the Spearmint green I’d talked myself out of four hours earlier. I went with white for the phone front, and a light blue for the button and camera ring color. I chose a green bowling ball wallpaper and I told the phone to tell me “Heya Jeffrey!” every time I turn it on. You can put a message on the back, but “If found, please contact Jeff at …” wound up being too long so I left it blank. 

What I want my phone to say is, “I’m Jeff, and I like to party, but not too much.” What I’m afraid my phone says is, “I’m with this guy.” What it really says, I guess you’ll have to tell me. My Moto X will arrive in 5 days.

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