I’ll be frank with you, I don’t like BlackBerries. I do not understand people who say they’re beautiful and I certainly do NOT understand how they manage to stay sane, without straight jackets, using that train wreck which the people at RIM call an user interface.
Possibly the main cause of this is within RIM itself, and its engineering driven pipeline. Anyone who has ever held a Blackberry and used it knows this. It looks shiny and nice on the surface. But if you dare not stop there, you’re in for a surprise. An uncomfortable one too. The second layer of menus and options is on the level windows was in 1992. And even then they knew better and used icons. Endless lists of options three, even four layers deep. Absolutely no sign of grouping or helping the user in any way. Did I mention its black and white? Drop down menus with on/off options? With that rather passive aggressive intro I should remind you, this post is not a Blackberry public hanging. It was just my first reaction tho the ascetic interface and lack of proper user experience.
Blackberry has its own app store now. Correct me if I’m wrong, but there aren’t many apps that challenge the status quo in design. This might sound cocky and arrogant but I’ve done my research and there is only a handful of apps that don’t give in to the dull, gray, “business” look. Those apps are the beacon of light for RIM, although they might not know it (RIM that is). I’m talking of course about Evernote, Opera mini and facebook.
So, what are the biggest issues when designing for Blackberry? There are many caveats from the multiple resolutions, navigations, input methods (keyboards/touchscreens) to hardware and operating system constraints. This kind of fragmentation can only be matched by android and Nokia’s Symbian. Toshl is an application designed for smart phones, problem is, Blackberry has many smart phones. Torch, Pearl, Bold, Curve and Storm 1 & 2. They have four different resolutions ranging from 320×240 up to 480×360 pixels. To top it off, we have to deal with 3 different operating systems (4.2, 5.0 and 6.0) coupled with touch only, touch + keyboard and the classic Blackberry slide button navigation. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you are a bad person for using a Blackberry, what I’m saying is the people at RIM could do much, much better and I back it up with examples above.
Back to designing. Usually the best thing to do when developing for a device is to own one, and test prototypes of the software on it. Not being avid BB users, we hit a wall pretty soon. The famous BlackBerry navigation. All of a sudden EVERYTHING needed an over state. And I admit I did not see that one coming. Back to the drawing board it was for me. I studied the OS and used the phone for awhile. I got used to the slide button (or whatever they call it) and saw the beauty in it. Its an elegant way to traverse boatloads of options and data. The design on BlackBerry is nothing like the other platforms, it covers touch based devices as well as slide button ones. The flow of information and inputs was adjusted to better suit the vertical natured navigation. The biggest change in design is possibly the BlackBerry menu. We asked a good number of BlackBerry users what its for and learned that its THE option in BB applications. This means, when a user starts the application one of the first things he does is press the BB button to see the options he has.
We took this and twisted it a bit. Where as the conventional way is to display all the options all the time, we decided to display options relevant to the content. And because we didn’t want to add more tabs we included the total sum in the BB menu. The basic way to navigate Toshl is pretty simple. You see, the sliding button allows only four directions, so we decided left and right should be used for selecting tabs, up and down should be used for selecting elements within a tab. And this goes for the whole application.
Adding an expense is what matters most when you use an application like Toshl. If thats cumbersome, you better pack your bags. That’s why we want the application to walk the user through the process. At the start you’ll be greeted by one of our mascots, telling you to push the BB button and select “add expense” to begin using the application. The first thing you need to get out of your short term memory is the number. You always forget the number, so thats what’s up first. Next its the tags. You can either enter new ones and press the slide button (which neatly adds a space and comma), select an existing tag from the autosuggest menu or go to the tag screen via the handy button on the right of the tag input field. And thats it! That’s all you need to add an expense. One of the challenges here was getting the relevant information into the 320×240 pixel window. But I think this constrain helped us to stay focused and keep it as simple as possible.
Concluding, Toshl for BlackBerries turned out to be a great project with great results. It tested the way we prepare for different resolutions and multiple input methods, actually, it took them to a whole new level. And that’s always a good thing. I tried to stay as objective as possible, but you should know that I’m the one responsible for the Toshl design, and that this could be classified as a rant. Don’t mind me then, BlackBerry phones (and users for that matter) just seem to think differently. Aw, snap!
At this point we would also like to thank all of our volunteer BlackBerry testers. Kudos to all of you.
written by Matic Pelcl, Toshl lead designer.