BlackBerry Live: Delving into BlackBerry’s Design Choices

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The designs of the new BlackBerry 10 handsets are arguably just as unique as the UI that runs on them, and that’s no coincidence. At a session at BlackBerry Live today, Todd Wood, BlackBerry’s Senior Vice President of Design, and Don Lindsay, Vice President of User Experience, offered some insight on how codependent the hardware and software were in the designing process.

Todd Wood BlackBerry Live“A few years ago, BlackBerry put the hardware and software designers together, and that gave us the opportunity to do interesting things,” said Wood.

Architectural designs, for example, influenced certain aspects of the BlackBerry 10 UI, and he showed the audience a photo of a modern, one-floor house in which moving from room to room was fluid since they were all in a row. “This idea of flow and horizontal movement, that fundamental piece of architecture was a big influence,” he said.

Wood went on to discuss specific influences that the phones’ design had on the interface, like the way certain shapes matched up. The rounded corners of the phone, for instance, mimic the keys and certain icons in the interface. “All of the shapes go together, like a family,” he said.

Lindsay, however, made it sound like more of a relationship in which the UI and the design played off each other. One example he gave was the edge-to-edge glass of the Z10. “We needed that design aspect in order to deliver a UI that was dependent on gestures,” he said. “With this surface, we were free to perform those gestures. We’re really celebrating a large piece of glass.”

Like the chicken and the egg, it begs the question of whether the designs of the phones were built around the UI, or vice versa. “It’s hard to say which came first, the design or the UI,” said Lindsay. “We had agreed upon a set of principles and one of those was a pure touch experience. Declaring that informed both teams to make decisions and required us to work together to achieve that goal.”

BlackBerry Z10 Mock UpThis focus on touch also left the hardware designers with extra real estate with which to work, especially on the Q10. “With the touch UI, we can reclaim the area below the screen now, which used to be taken up by navigational keys,” said Wood. He also pointed out how the letter keys on the Q10 are now all equal size and have larger fonts on them. Also, while the trackpad previously forced designers to put the keys in curved rows, they’ve now been straightened out to improve the typing experience, which seemed like an obvious choice.

Some aspects of the BlackBerry 10 UI were equally obvious based on the design choices, like the fact that word prediction (the suggestions from which hover over the virtual keyboard on the Z10) had to place its suggestions on the bottom of the screen on the Q10. Also a given is how, on the Q10, the action bar in the Hub or certain apps disappears from the bottom of the screen when users begin scrolling since screen space is limited.

But some of ideas were a little cleverer, like the incorporation of keyboard shortcut hints into the UI; when users swipe from the right to view options in an app, the shortcuts are listed next to each of the functions. The absence of a search key also drove the design teams to the idea of “type and go,” in which users can just start typing and not only run a search, but they can also choose an option from an automatically generated list of actions, contacts, apps, etc. “The keyboard is now adding efficiency besides shortcuts,” said Lindsay.

Don Lindsay and Todd WoodThere were even more granular factors, like how the OLED technology that’s used in the display of the Q10 saves power by not lighting diodes to display the color black. As such, the color scheme of the UI was inverted in some scenarios to have a light text on a dark background (rather than vice versa), thereby increasing power efficiency.

“This is how we’re continuing to evolve the BlackBerry 10 platform based on the devices,” said Lindsay.

Even the teams’ beginnings with BlackBerry 10 drew from what they already knew, though. According to Wood, some of the inspirations for the teams’ ideas came from past projects. “A lot of what we learned came from the PlayBook, like the idea of gestures starting off screen.” he said, referring to the BlackBerry tablet. “We also noticed that in the past, most BlackBerry users spent a lot of time in the inbox. But it’s also a phone and it has apps. So how do you manage all those aspects without forcing a user to go in and out?”

This desire to avoid menu-diving was what pointed Lindsay and Wood in the direction of a UI that didn’t revolve around a home screen. To figure out how to manage the UI’s navigation without a home screen or home button, the two developed paper prototypes of menus and simulated interfaces.

“We had to answer a lot of questions,” said Wood. “How should we do this? Which side is the Hub on? We kept on trying things until we got to something and said, ‘Hey, this works.'”

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