Behind the scenes: The making of BlackBerry 10

Early design sketches for the BlackBerry Z10. Credit: Simon Bisson

It was snowing when we arrived at the BlackBerry campus in Waterloo, on a bitterly cold winter day. There were icicles under the bus, and the bare trees and snow-covered fields turned Canada black and white. We were visiting BlackBerry’s home ground to hear the story behind BlackBerry 10, the company’s new operating system and the engine it hopes to power a dramatic turnaround. Two years of work had just ended, and the company was ready to talk about what it had done, how it had done it, and where it wanted to go.

Credit:Simon Bisson
The BlackBerry Campus in Waterloo, in depths of winter.

CEO Thorsten Heins was uncharacteristically ebullient. “You’re seeing us at a very exciting time. You’ve seen what we’ve been through, to get to a new platform with the launch done, working a real time transition. It’s been two years of hard work, staying relevant with BlackBerry 6 and 7, while we were building a whole new platform under the magnifying glass of the media.”

BlackBerry has launched its new OS and devices just a couple of weeks before, with devices on sale in the UK, in Canada and in the Middle East -- and soon to arrive in the US. While Heins couldn’t give us any numbers, he did say, “I’m really excited by where we are. What we’re seeing from sales is very encouraging. We have built something that fits the world’s eye, something that is different and speaks to the market”.

Heins has had two challenges: to shepherd the new BlackBerry platform to launch, and to restructure and rebuild the company, with a whole new management team. That’s meant keeping engineering at work, while bringing in a new marketing team, a new COO, and even a new legal team.

He’s not finished. “We’re not done with our transformation, we’re about 60% done. But we did the right thing, it gives us energy to proceed.”

Behind the software

We’ve all seen BlackBerry 10 now, with its gesture driven user interface and its dip-in, dip-out Hub. Vivek Bhardwaj, head of Software Portfolio, explained that it was designed to help users make efficient use of their time, letting them choose what to interact with, whether email, Facebook, Twitter, or BBM, and when. Bhardwaj noted that the Hub is central to BB 10, suggesting, “Ultimately it’s an enabler.”

Credit: Simon Bisson
Early design sketches for the BlackBerry Z10.

It’s a big change for users familiar with the BlackBerry keyboard, but one Bhardwaj feels the company needed to make. In fact, the change was right there at the start of the design process.

“The first thing we needed to do was remove all physical navigation. We kept the BlackBerry DNA, but moved to a gesture-based UI using the thumb. The result was a thumb-based, single-handed UI.” The process involved a lot of comparisons with other smartphones, and Bhardwaj said that approach had inspired key design decisions, “We found a barrier was having to look at everything on the screen. With BB 10 controls and actions are in the bottom third of the screen, within thumb reach, no need for confirmation. So it’s just a gesture to wake them up.”

BlackBerry knew it wanted to offer a multitasking environment, but also knew what it wanted to avoid. “A grid of apps, an in and out experience, that wasn’t what we want to develop. We wanted to be able to open up apps and continue to open others -- like on your computer. That’s the world we want users to live in.”

BB 10 limits users to eight concurrently running apps, as research had found that most users cycled between 5 and 7 apps at a time, and tended to forget what they were doing with more than 7 in use. The UI makes sure that the most recent is at the top left, and the least used is at the bottom right. If you open a ninth app, the OS just closes the eighth. The Hub itself replaces what could have been another dozen or so apps, with quick access to notifications – and to what you were doing last. Bhardwaj describes it as like using a watch, “with simple human actions. It’s a living service that continues to run all the time, just a single gesture away.” He notes one big change as a result, “There’s no messaging icon, anywhere.”

Other aspects of core features come from recent BlackBerry acquisitions. The calendar owes a lot to web service Tungle.me, while Gist.com was the foundation for the tools that mix social network information and personal analytics to give you information about people you’re emailing or meeting. It’s clear that BlackBerry is confident that its design will meet the test of real world users – but it’s prepared to make necessary changes. As Bhardwaj notes, “We’re getting a lot of analytics, and we’ll be reviewing the data to see how things are being used.”

The Z10 is a touch device first and foremost, so what of the keyboard? While the upcoming Q10 has a physical keyboard that owes much to the Bold series of devices, the Z10’s touch keyboard takes a very different direction. Like the UI’s one-thumb gesture language, it’s designed to be used one-handed, with a predictive text engine that uses swipe gestures to quickly flick words up from the keyboard and learns common sequences of words.

But how do you test a touch keyboard? BlackBerry is using robot hands with built-in cameras. That way it can test for latency, while maximizing target key sizes and choosing the best shapes for dynamically changing hit targets. There’s also support for BlackBerry’s international customers, with the ability to type in (and get autocorrect for) up to three different languages at the same time.

A new platform is nothing without software. But how do you encourage developers to build for your hardware, especially when press and analysts seem to be predicting a messy flameout? First you need a developer strategy, and the tools for developers to build apps. But that’s no longer enough: with two mature mobile application ecosystems any new platform will have to hit the ground running, with many of the most popular apps already available – to attract switchers and to show other developers that there’s significant interest in the platform.

That’s why Marty Mallick, VP of Global Alliances and Business Development, spent much of the last two years working with partners to get top brand names on board. “We needed to make sure that we developed a platform that had apps and content at its heart.”

BlackBerry’s new QT-based Cascades UI wasn’t the only route to the platform, with the HTML5 WebWorks and Adobe’s AIR being joined by gaming platforms like Unity and Marmalade. Mallick pointed out that approach meant that BlackBerry had what he called, “a two prong strategy, with depth and breadth.”

BlackBerry had had to work with a mix of global and regional partners. Mallick told us, “Global partners were apps like key social media tools, and we approached them from a category perspective, then regional teams for local content”. Some apps were quick ports, others needed more work, as Mallick said, “With our bigger partners we worked on deep integration, with features like BBM. There were some issues around customising the platform, but the BlackBerry frameworks proved productive”.

Designing BB 10

An OS and apps are only part of a modern phone, and the hardware needs as much thought – if not more. While there are only a few shapes that work well in the hand, the design needs to be distinctive – but still in sync with the software. SVP of Design Todd Wood’s design team had already found some design themes that worked in their Moleskine-inspired design for the PlayBook tablet which used the whole of the device’s surface for navigation, but the new phones needed to also build on BlackBerry’s history.

The design process mixed the traditional with the modern, as Wood explained. “It began as sketching, engaging with users; interviewing end users and also carriers. We listened to what they liked, what they don’t like.”

Treating design as a problem solving exercise, Wood’s team moved to creating prototype phones, using 3D printers to quickly create 3D prototypes. “That gets us shapes, for feel in hand, for in pockets, to hold against the ear, until it’s just right,” Wood said. The rapid prototyping meant that there were thousands of prototypes for the Z10, giving the design team the ability to move to a more iterative design process.

Some of that prototype work got real world testing in the shape of the various Dev Alpha devices BlackBerry seeded to developers. It wasn’t just a tool to learn how developers would build apps, and to refine the various SDKs, it also let the design team refine device structure, reshaping corners and reducing the amount of glass – as well as making it stronger.

Credit: Toy Dog Design via Flickr

Inspiration come from many places -- including buildings like the Farnsworth House

Inspiration didn’t just come from the UI, or all those generations of BlackBerry devices.

Like PlayBook, the Z10 and Q10 designs owe much to classic designs – designs that might not immediately spring to mind when you’re thinking of technology. For the new BlackBerrys that inspiration was architect Mies van der Rohe, and his Farnsworth House. Wood talked about how it inspired much of the work on the new devices: “[The house] is all horizontal planes. It was the epitome of minimalist modern architecture and design”. That inspiration led to Wood thinking about minimalism and devices. “The benefits of minimal design is that it doesn’t fight with the world, so the user experience become the stage. You don’t want to notice your phone or your device.”

That doesn’t mean making the phone invisible. There are some aspects of the new devices’ design that are meant to be noticed, like the computer generated texture on the back of the device, which fades toward the edges, and Wood notes, “It has a soft touch finish that’s got what we call a fiddle factor”. Other aspects of the design help with some of the Z10’s new features, with the BlackBerry logo on the back acting as a pointer to just where the device’s NFC antenna is situated.

Hardware and software design go together to make a user experience, and another acquisition, of interaction specialists The Astonishing Tribe, drove much of the software side of BB 10. VP of User Experience Design Don Lindsay handled that acquisition, and set many of the design principles used across the platform. Lindsay described his four core principles as, “A cinematic experience that’s true to BlackBerry, with purposeful design and moments of charm.”

BlackBerry’s history, and its many still loyal users, mean that there’s still something that Lindsay calls “BlackBerry DNA; the things we just can’t change, the very definition of BlackBerry.” But that doesn’t mean the platform hasn’t changed. That’s where the cinematic experience comes in, giving developers access to every pixel on a BB 10 device’s screen. That means that there’s no visible navigation or status bars, allowing apps to be high definition, large format, with sweeping panoramas: just like a cinema screen.

“We focused on swipes and gestures,” Lindsay explains, “and exploring these ideas, of accessing the home screen by swiping, led to the idea of Peek.”

Giving apps access to all the pixels was both an opportunity and a problem for the designers. While apps could be immersive, there was an issue around giving users notifications – how could BB 10 show them status information? PlayBook used a simple pull-down gesture to access status information, which led the design team to thinking about using thumb gestures to access information without losing context. The result was a system that let you drop down into multiple levels of notifications from personal accounts, from work accounts, from apps and from social media, and then return to just where you were. As Lindsay notes, it’s new and different, “but it’s still true to BlackBerry.”

Credit: Simon Bisson
Early UI designs for BB 10.

These are devices that are meant to be used, and the user interface is key to the BB 10 design principles. Lindsay describes it as “carefully thinking about the context of device usage, for example how we thought about one-handed operation.” That meant starting active items in the bottom two-thirds of the screen making them easier to reach with a thumb. The same technique lets BB 10 have a multi-touch UI, where when you’re using two hands one thumb can open a menu, the other select an item.

Crossing the App Gap

BlackBerry knows it needs to get developers to understand just how the new user interface works. Working without buttons can be a challenge, but Lindsay notes, “We learnt a lot with PlayBook and brought that into BB 10”. That means getting toolkits out to developers, and having consistency between the different runtimes BB 10 offers developers, all of which requires Lindsay’s team to deliver publishing guidelines, design patterns, and libraries of icons. “There’s lots we can do to make life simpler,” he says, “The more we can spell out, the more we can define; the more likely developers are to build apps.”

Getting those developers on board is VP of Developer Relations Alec Saunders’ job, so it was perhaps fitting that we met up with him off the BlackBerry campus, in the Communitech technology incubator in an old tanning factory downtown Kitchener.

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