With the release of the BlackBerry Z10 smartphone, the company once known as Research in Motion has staked its future on an ambitious bet: that it could craft a new "mobile user experience" that would, by itself, prove a strong attraction for buyers.
In practice, that means designing a new user interface that can smoothly exploit both the hardware and software features of not just the new smartphones, the all-touch Z10 and the qwerty-keyboard Q10, but also other types of mobile devices, from tablets to automotive systems to exotic embedded systems.
To any number of critics, even thinking about doing so was delusional. RIM, now called BlackBerry, had leveraged the success of its corporate, wireless email devices into smartphone products that grew rapidly in popularity during the mid-2000s. Then Apple introduced the iPhone in mid-2007 and changed the end user expectations about what a mobile device should be like. BlackBerry users were still growing fast, from 8 million in 2007 to 70 million in 2011.
[ FIRST LOOK: BlackBerry 10 smartphones ]
But it couldn't keep pace with the growth of Android and Apple. And its own growth slowed dramatically in 2011, accompanied by a plunge in the stock price, and a widely held view that BlackBerry was finished.
The jury is still out, but even most of the critical early reviews of the Z10 recognize the distinctiveness of the new UI. The BlackBerry Hub, a kind of integrated inbox for communications, alerts, and messaging and email, replaces the characteristic grid of apps that is the typical starting point for iOS and Android users today. The grid is still there, but you reach it with one of a new set of fluid gestures, which users have to invest some time in learning and practicing. The idea is that the Hub becomes both your focal and reference points, and from there you can bring up apps -- by a touch or a swipe -- in context with the tasks you want to perform.
The Canadian company was depending on a relative newcomer, Don Lindsay, vice president of user experience design, to coordinate the effort to redefine not just the "BlackBerry experience," but the core "mobile experience" for users.
Lindsay speaks quietly, unassertively, methodically and readily: He's given these issues a lot of thought. He was recruited from Microsoft, where he worked for about five years, where he was design director at Microsoft Live Labs. Before that, he spent 10 years in design at Apple, where he was design director for the Mac OS X User Experience Group.
He also played a key role in BlackBerry's 2010 acquisition of The Astonishing Tribe (TAT), a relatively small but highly regarded design group in Malmo, Sweden, which already counted Samsung, Motorola and Google Android as mobile design clients. That was the same year that BlackBerry bought QNX Software, maker of a proven real-time operating system, which became the foundation on which the new BlackBerry user experience would be built.
In a December 2012 story in The Wall Street Journal, Lindsay was quoted as saying that TAT has "been the single largest contributor to the design of the experience" for the BlackBerry 10 operating system. "They are driving all of this."
But Lindsay credits RIM co-founder and longtime co-CEO Mihalis "Mike" Lazaridis with the initial vision displayed when he recruited Lindsay. "He recognized that [post-iPhone] there were expectations about how a consumer device should look like and behave," Lindsay says. Lazaridis has already brought in another relative newcomer, Senior Vice President Todd Wood, to reset the company's industrial design discipline for hardware.
"[Lazaridis] wanted us to bring all this to bear at RIM," says Lindsay. "He saw this was not an area of strength for the company. His idea was to 'help us understand and create an experience that appeals to a larger audience. And help us bring it to market.'"
Lindsay began doing so first with the legacy BlackBerry OS, versions 6 and 7. "We made good advances, but the older Blackberry platform put a lot of constraints on what we could actually change," he says. "It was only with BlackBerry 10 that we fully envisioned what BlackBerry needed to have to achieve that wider appeal."
That process was guided by a number of basic principles and "core beliefs."
One was "be true to BlackBerry," Lindsay says. That is, be true to what was dubbed the "BlackBerry DNA." "There was the real, recognized brand value of BlackBerry: productivity, efficiency, empowering the user," Lindsay says. "We had slogan: 'a tool, not a toy.' It was about providing an experience that would help users be productive, capture their ideas, express themselves, and engage with their communities. This was not new for BlackBerry."
But the design group saw this "DNA" as an opportunity because rival platforms were, Lindsay says, "consumption and entertainment focused." "We wanted a broad base of the market to be contributors, not just consumers," he says.
Another principle was purposeful design. "One-handed use [of the smartphone] is one example," Lindsay says. "If you have a mobile handset operated with one hand [specifically one thumb], then that influences decisions like the size of the targets on the touch screen, the position of elements, and so on."
But the designers carried this farther, by realizing that they could combine one-handed and two-handed operations. "It can be very useable with one hand but more useable with two, using two thumbs," Lindsay says. For example, using both while you're triaging email in your inbox. You can touch a message with one thumb, see the contextual [task] menu come up, and hit the 'delete' key [or 'reply'] with your other thumb. You can develop a rhythm of interaction."
One of the most influential principles was what the designers term "cinematic experience." Lindsay says that some outsiders think this refers only to the phone's ability to play high-definition video and its HDMI port.
"But for us it translates into 'a large screen, entirely filled by the [user] experience,'" he says. "We're giving application developers control over every pixel on the screen, not reserving some of them for things like [showing] battery life or signal strength or a virtual home button. It creates a more immersive user experience. And it also gives more room to a sweeping panorama and gestures. It was this that led us to consider using gestures instead of buttons."
One result: simple, sensuous and unfailingly consistent gestures for navigating the phone and improving the experience of working with it. "We called it 'stroking not poking,'" Lindsay says. Working through the implications of this eventually led designers to BlackBerry Peek, pressing on a screen and sliding it to the side to see something else "underneath" it, such as battery life or other system indicators. Eventually, Lindsay says, the designers realized they could use the gesture to peek into more and more areas, such as the Hub and then into email and text messages, without abandoning the initial or "top" app.
Lindsay says he's read a few reviews of the Z10 and BB10, by reviewers he respects. "The general sentiment, I think, is that they think it is innovative and [that] we have a clear value proposition," he says. "We are attempting to innovate. And with innovation comes new challenges, especially in how to train and educate customers to use the new UI."
To do that, the Z10 comes with a simple fold-out pamphlet that illustrates the gestures, and the phone itself offers a quick tutorial that new users can't avoid.
"The common sentiment [among reviewers] is that there is a very short learning period at the beginning," Lindsay says. "But the reward of having learned that is [that] it becomes very intuitive and very natural."
Lindsay would only talk generally about the design team's current priorities. But he started by emphasizing that "BB10 is a mobile computing platform."
"The Z10 and Q10 are just the first two devices," he says. "The challenge is, can we define a platform experience that scales across a wide array of possible device implementations? How do we define a platform that scales appropriately for that? Can we ensure the platform 'holds together' as we move from one device to another?"
John Cox covers wireless networking and mobile computing for Network World. Twitter: @johnwcoxnww Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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