User Interface, the choice between function and form. can’t we have both?

User Interface or UI for short. This a very hot topic in computing and equally so in the mobile space. For years we people of the world have been hearing the Mac vs Windows argument and sure there is a lot of technical reasons to choose either platform but one of the main differences between the two (and the point of this post) has always been their UI philosophy. The Mac has always been about a clean and minimalist design where as Windows has a more of an all things to all people approach. Both work well and it comes down to personal preference. (Except for gamers, until very recently they had to use Windows and that was it.)

    

Look into the mobile space and one of the main reasons people choose Android over iOS or BlackBerry is being able to really customize the look and feel of the OS to get a fully personalized experience from it. Apple iPhone users on the other hand seem to really like how Apple has designed the UI of the device (they have no choice) and are very happy with it as it is. BlackBerry users, well I’m not so sure yet but I think for the most part they like the power user features the platform provides and as such don’t care as much as long as its fully functional with quick access to features, just like it is now.

    

But do we have to sacrifice a few UI enhancements for the sake of extended functionality? No we don’t and as PlayBook OS2 is showing us BlackBerry users we won’t be sacrificing anything in the UI of our BlackBerry phones for much longer.

So. What makes a good UI? Well are we making a UI for consumers? Professionals? Or a multi-use UI good for all? Well these days I’m not so sure there’s a difference between professional and consumer any more so we are left with one question. What makes a great UI?

That’s a hard one, as the old saying goes “you can’t please all the people all the time”. So let’s look at what’s on the market now and see what choices us consumers have.

Apple. They take the minimalist approach with their UI design on iOS. I like the menu styles, buttons and the little animations when actions take place (like wipes, fades and so on) as well as the icon layout and general feel of the OS. They have a few things in there I’m not to impressed with like the app options always being in system preferences (although I suspect this is on purpose to keep it simple for non tech users), the little red notification dots that are completely lost in folders and a few other things but all in all its a clean and nice looking UI and its easy to see why its popular, though still not for everyone.

Android. Well its a lot like the Apple UI but built for tech heads. Its got the standard rows of icons, swipe for pages and a few icons on top for connectivity and so on. But they built it with steroids for user mods. The way you can modify the info you seen on the home screen is great. It can get a bit busy with icons flashing and information popping up from everywhere, it’s almost overwhelming at first. Of course with the different manufacturers using their own UI’s for Android it makes them a bit different from each other but the main facets of the Android OS are evident on all the devices. It’s great for people who need to control as much of the experience as they can and who love lots of custom info on their home screen. Again like iOS it’s another great UI if it suits your needs, or if you’re not the Apple type (article for another day, absolute brand hate).

BlackBerry. The BlackBerry approach is a middle ground between the two. It grew up from its scroll wheel UI roots and I think it grew up well. The scroll wheel gave way to the track ball then the track pad and all the while it never lost its easy, one-handed mode of operation. The UI’s original layout of icons on a panel has worked perfectly in the modern-day and will scale to the future just fine. The BlackBerry OS has the search, sound profiles, notifications, app menus, connectivity icons and all on the home screen. It’s a great mix of form and function and the only thing a user of another platform could say is it’s just not as flashy, and their right. After all you can’t very well tell someone their opinion is wrong, it doesn’t work.

So we have three selections in OS and three different UI philosophies as well. Apple the minimalist that loves its UI so much that you’re not allowed to change it at all. Android, while wearing a different suit from each manufacturer, it still tries to be all things for all people and it mostly works very well. Then we have BlackBerry. The one who started it all. Its feature set is as modern as they come (really, if you remove apps from the equation are the platforms not on an equal playing filed when you compare their core feature sets?) and the info made available to the user is amazing, the options for customization are good and yet it’s not getting the love. Why?

When I unlock my BlackBerry I see my app update count, BBM count, email count, text count, bridge, search, profile selection, voice mail icon, favorite apps and all. Plus there’s room for and to see a custom background, or like on mine a live weather background with full info. How can this not be good? The icons on my Torch 9810 running OS 7.1.0.205 for apps like calendar, tasks, browser and all are every bit as nice as those on iOS or any flavor of Android. My search, WiFi and audio icons are almost the same as the others as well. Then what is it? What is it about the BlackBerry UI (let’s face it along with the phones looks what a person sees on the home screen is a big selling point) that is making some people say no and go to Apple or Android? I think I know and ill tell you.

Buttons. Yes, buttons.

It’s a fact of the modern-day smart phone consumer but as it is now most people walk in to the cell store and see two types of phones. The low-end phones with lots of buttons and the high-end phones with almost no buttons at all. I think this is why BlackBerry’s full screen Torch 9860 gets no love, the buttons and the big track pad at the bottom. That track pad is such a big part of the look of the phone that a person can’t help but think it’s an important part of the UI (and it is), and that is not what the modern-day smart phone shopper wants. They want an iPhone inspired touch screen UI and they see navigation controls like a track pad as out of date.

  

Now to those of us who are true thumb warriors, having a real proper feeling keyboard is much more important than a fancy touch UI but for the most part, people want a phone that looks like the iPhone and I don’t think they know why, they just want it.

So it comes down to the buttons, its true. Remember when the iPhone 4s was announced, all people did was complain that it wasn’t an all new and cool looking iPhone 5. Never mind the new dual core chip, better cameras and loads of other features Apple announced, all people cared was that it didn’t have a new look. Now it is selling very well, but the complaints were there none the less. It’s lucky for Apple that they are the cool company right now or it might not have sold as well, who knows. People are that fickle about these things.

So, what does RIM do? Abandon the traditional BlackBerry form factor and jump fully on board the full touch screen bandwagon? No, they don’t. What they do is what they are doing right now, wait until BB10 is ready to go and then bring out the new models. It’s all about BB10. The BBOS7 menus are not really optimized for full touch only usage, there a bit small/thin and more suited for the track pad they were originally meant to be used with. That’s why RIM put the track pad on the 9860, it really needs to be there.

  

This is where BB10 comes to the rescue, it will scale itself to all the different models and their modes of use with well designed touch controls just like on the PlayBook, as well as the hardware keyboard usage and shortcuts we all love. Features that are properly designed to work in both keyboard and non keyboard form factors. This is what RIM needs. This way users who want the traditional Bold form factor to have the best keyboard experience they can get or users who want the new school full touch screen phone, can have exactly what they want from the BlackBerry ecosystem with all the benefits it comes with. The same RIM OS will drive them all and if done right, no fragmentation issues for developers to deal with. The perfect mobile world indeed.

  

So, how do they deal with the buttons on the traditional BlackBerry form factor phones? Easy, it’s an industrial design issue. But that’s a topic for another day.

Chat soon.

Thanks for reading everyone. Pics are random grabs from the internet and are being used for illustration purposes only,

Thomas.

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