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A brief history of the BlackBerry UI

Obvious thinking

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About half the people with a BlackBerry know that if you press space twice you get full-stop space. But only a few of them know that you can use space in email addresses to get full-stops and @ symbols. Tell them and their eyes light up with the thought that their little tool has just become that much more productive.

This is the major problem with a user interface, and in particular mobile phone user interfaces: discovery. On a PC you can "lead" users into shortcuts and how to use things. A mobile UI should be just as obvious.

Ten years ago, Nokia had the reputation for being leader of the pack with user interfaces. There were two reasons for this. One is that they really did have the best UI. The other is that market dominance meant that they were the most familiar. So even complicated, not-so-obvious things such as pressing the “menu*” button to switch off the keyboard lock became natural.

That’s the thing with user interfaces. Once you have become habituated to something it becomes second nature. Why should a square mean “stop” when the road sign is octagonal? It’s all about balance: a balance of features against complexity.

Nokia gained the lead when Christian Lindholm brought psychologists in to understand how people related to phones. Before then the decisions had been made by engineers. One of the many fruits of this was the Nokia 6310, still cited as the best business phone ever. An early Bluetooth device, it really got the balance of ease-of-use against features right. One of the other, spectacular ease-of-use successes was the 3310 and the Navi-key interface.

All about buttons

Ask a product manager what would make their phone simple and they say “dedicated buttons”. Let’s have a button for the camera, one for turning the light on and off, one for GPS, one for Wi-Fi. Soon you have more buttons than a Cadbury’s factory and it’s horrifically complicated. What made Navi-key great was that in addition to the numbers there was up/down, cancel and a single softkey.

You want the fewest buttons for the tasks you want to complete. The problem comes when you add features. There is a balance between the number of buttons and what you want the phone to do. Start adding features to a phone with too few buttons and you’ve no idea what to press to do what.

Where the BlackBerry got it right, from day one, is knowing what it was about: messaging. And particularly email. Indeed, first generation BlackBerries didn’t do voice, and when it was added, it was only with headphone. The BlackBerry has always been about email, a strength it takes from its “focus group of one”: Mike Lazaridis, RIM’s CEO. Instead of asking lots of naive users what they would like the device to do, the BlackBerry was built around Lazaridis’s view of what a device should do.

This single-mindedness has helped keep the focus on mail, but as the number of features has grown the device has had to evolve. What’s not shown, until OS 6.0, is that the foundations for a messaging-led platform make everything else work that bit better.

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