The ideal BlackBerry-Android UX
If reports are to be believed it seems like BlackBerry may soon opt for the Android OS to power its devices. While the BlackBerry OS is not a terrible one in and of itself, the lack of developer support and the ever widening app gap mean that they might have to embrace the more popular platform in order to stay alive and relevant in this cutthroat smartphone landscape.
However, there’s a difference between jumping on a bandwagon and doing it right. It would be awfully simple to go for a stock version of android with some added software, and a lot of Android enthusiasts would be happy with it as well. But I believe that in the case of BlackBerry devices that would not be the best way to go. BlackBerry devices have always been focused towards productivity, meant for office goers and professionals who want to get the most work done as efficiently as possible. Android on the other hand, has evolved into an experience centered around customizability and openness, and in it’s latest iteration aims to delight the user with it’s bright colors, transitions and focus on visual content. If BlackBerry just slapped stock Android on top of their new and existing devices, I am sure people would like it, but it would lose the essence of what made the BlackBerry software experience what it was – a work oriented device which served as an aggregator of all your essential communications.
Of course, there’s a reason people migrated from the BlackBerry platform and it was partly due to their inability to cater to the new audience of people who wanted an experience that was able to provide both productivity and entertainment features in a way that was easy to use and customizable. However, even if Android does provide all the aforementioned things, BlackBerry did do some things right with their BlackBerry 10.x platform.
The ideal Blackberry-Android experience should be in my opinion, an amalgamation of the best features of both the platforms, that kept not only the body but the soul of the BlackBerry experience alive in a way that’s meaningful and useful.
I really like how the BlackBerry OS handles lockscreen notifications. A vertical row of icons to indicate the app from which the notification is from. Touching one of the icons opens up a preview of the notifications to the right, which can be acted upon by tapping once more. Although the detailed information about the notification takes one more tap to access, overall it is much cleaner, and you get to select which notification you want to view. Android Lollipop shows you snippets of notifications aligned front and center, with some information at a glance. This gives you more information initially, but all the notifications are below one another in a row, and the snippet previews sometimes do not convey enough information.
This system of iconized notifications makes for a more segregated and clean experience, and although detailed information is one more tap away, it goes well with the BlackBerry user experience in the sense that you can quickly get an overview of all the notifications that you have, without having to look at information from every app that gives you a notification. Notifications overload is an annoyance many smartphone users face, with social networks, games and other apps generating a lot of notifications. While Android does provide granular notification management through priority notifications, BlackBerry should include their style of notifications management as default.
One of the marquee features of the BlackBerry platform is the physical keyboard, along with their SureType technology. Physical keyboards provide certain tactile affordances that virtual keyboards do not, and in the case of the BlackBerry Passport it even put in the ability to scroll through web pages or to place a cursor by swiping on the keyboard itself, by making the hardware keyboard capacitive.
Navigation across the UI and performing certain tasks could be made better if the keyboard’s capabilities are leveraged. The BlackBerry OS provided the ability to use keyboard shortcuts such as unlocking the phone with two key presses, using keyboard shortcuts for searching or going up and down a page on a website would be even more useful if Android apps were able to use these features.
But apart from the hardware keyboard, BlackBerry even has their SureType technology which gives the user word prediction features. If you make a mistake while typing it’s easier to swipe up to correct or complete the word rather than lift your fingers and tap at the predicted word. A BlackBerry device without its keyboard technology would just not feel like a BlackBerry at all.
Another great feature of the BlackBerry OS I would like to see is the way it handles multitasking. Android’s current scrolling marquee doesn’t seem like the most efficient way of handling notifications. Cards still scroll vertically, and it doesn’t make much sense to me to have a carousel with all the apps you have ever opened ever as opposed to the list of the few most recently used apps. BlackBerry OS provides a customizable grid of icons, that provide more than just snippet previews of the apps in memory.
These icons are not just previews, they are minimized views of active applications. This provides a whole new dimension to the way multitasking is done. For example, a YouTube video will continue playing even when minimized to card form. Multitasking on Android is currently limited to task switching, using two apps simultaneously using features such as Samsung’s multi-window feature, or a miniaturized app implementation like Sony’s “small apps” which allow the user to run a select few apps in their own small windows. The BlackBerry OS style of live app previews gives the user better information about the app’s status as opposed to a scrolling view of static snippets that’s good to look at but slow to navigate.
The BlackBerry Hub
The Blackberry Hub is a unified inbox for every message you may receive. It takes away the time spent in going to every individual app whether it be email or messaging or social media, as it aggregates all the messages into one inbox. This feature should come standard with the BlackBerry devices running Android, as it really helps improve productivity. However, there should definitely be more options to fine tune the experience, perhaps like categories, tags, folders or some other means of managing the unified inbox, so the users can configure which messages they would want to receive.
Other neat tricks found within the BlackBerry OS such as lift to wake, flip to mute , etc should also come standard, as they really fit the needs of the professional who has to sit at a desk all day. All of these features really fit in with the “pick up the phone, glance at notifications, act upon them if required” workflow of the typical BlackBerry user.
How the Android UX would benefit the BlackBerry Experience
There are some features of the Android user experience that would greatly improve the usability of BlackBerry devices. OS 10.x was a great attempt at bringing the BlackBerry design language and aesthetics into the modern smartphone era. However, the decision to go with a swipe based navigation scheme proved to be a bit of a hindrance to users.
As Android and iOS show, users find it easier to navigate throughout the OS with a combination of hardware and software buttons. Due to the overwhelming ubiquity of these platforms, this navigation scheme has now become more familiar to smartphone users. swiping to the right or to the left to access software features, switch between apps, etc. requires some getting used to. Not only is it unfamiliar and unintuitive, it’s also inefficient. Certain features are hidden completely, and swiping through to the ends of the UI carousel can take a lot of time. The familiar Android bottom navigation bar would help greatly in this regard. In fact it could be supplemented by the BlackBerry keyboard shortcuts as I mentioned earlier.
I really believe that a combination of the simplicity of the Blackberry OS and Android’s powerful customizability and large selection of apps would make for a great overall experience. Stock Android has grown better with every iteration, but a BlackBerry device with stock Android would just be a wasteful endeavor. BlackBerry was about productivity, and that showed with it’s minimal design language and lack of gimmicks. But in today’s world where content is king and the masses desire ease of use and a great multimedia experience, BlackBerry’s attempts at catering to both kinds of users created a platform were too little too late, and the app gap meant that by the time they came around to providing all the great BlackBerry features in a more modern OS, users had already moved on.
On one hand, Android provides a powerful platform full of applications and developer support, but is primarily centered around multimedia consumption, ease of use and customizability. On the other hand, the BlackBerry OS provides the minimalism and productivity features that professionals desire, but at the cost of app support. If BlackBerry were to just adopt Android without tweaking it to provide the BlackBerry user experience that professionals desire, it would lead to a device with an identity crisis in a sea of Android devices that already exist. Blackberry has always been about the kind of users that thinks of their phone as a tool to get work done. In this sense, it should stick to what differentiates it from the rest of the manufacturers out there. A BlackBerry has always been more of a tool than a toy, and the Android platform would benefit from a productivity centered offering, just as much as BlackBerry would benefit from a healthy ecosystem.