BlackBerry's Alicia Keys stunt speaks to a larger truth

User experience is critical to products' and users' success, requiring a blend of science, engineering, and -- yes -- artistry

I thought BlackBerry's marketing event unveiling the BlackBerry Z10 and the truly new BlackBerry 10 OS was already way over the top. I even tweeted from the New York event how nuts it was, treating the product unveiling as if it were the resurrection of John Lennon. But then CEO Thorsten Heins showed there was an even greater height of marketing fluff to be reached.

In an event meant to showcase the BlackBerry 10 OS that is hoped to revive the stale BlackBerry platform, he concluded with the dumbfounding announcement that R&B pop star and sometimes-actress Alicia Keys was joining the company as its global creative director. Keys was there, speaking all the right lines about seeing the errors of her ways in her dalliance with the never named iPhone and returning to her steady flame, the BlackBerry. She even participated in a press conference. Never mind that she, or at least her publicist acting on her behalf, tweeted from her iPhone that very day.

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Not only unreal, it was a bizarre publicity stunt that in many ways overshadowed the key news: the BlackBerry itself. It felt like a deliberate attempt to change the subject from the solid but ultimately not-game-changing BlackBerry 10 OS. However, the Keys hire (I suspect it won't be a long-term arrangement) points out a key shift in technology today that does matter.

It's a shift toward user experience, one that pundits and analysts have been proclaiming for years. Though a trendy topic with its own acronym (UX), user experience has gained little traction in the real world of both consumer and business product development beyond a few companies, such as Apple, most notably, and TiVo. Everyone talks the talk, but very few walk the walk.

Too many organizations -- vendors, IT developers, and independent developers -- have a tin ear when it comes to user experience. Either they don't understand how their products are used by regular people, or they don't care. Many make the mistake of confusing "user experience" with "pretty" or "hip," so they decorate their products rather than make them workable. That's lipstick on a pig.

Keys showed some of that naïveté in her BlackBerry news conference, suggesting that she would help make future BlackBerrys more appealing to women. I hope that doesn't mean pink or gem-studded BlackBerrys, the usual clichés for what women want. She should first ask whether women relate to smartphones differently than men, then explore why (if so). But Keys is a very talented artist and businessperson, so I suspect her thinking will go deeper than that, despite the shallow comments.

User experience involves understanding how things work, how to make them work easier, and transferring the complexity away from the user without dumbing down the product. That was Steve Jobs' genius at Apple, but he isn't the only person who can think that way.

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