Wall•E is a humorous, robo-everything, sci-fi dystopia. This puts some challenges for the interfaces, as they have to sometimes break believability for the joke. Still, the humor is meant to be all in-world (or diegetic), so we can apply a thorough real-world critique.
Sci: A- (3.5 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?
It’s funny. Wall-E is a mix of both realistic interfaces that you might find in the real world, and cinematic interfaces that really only work for the narrative.
The Dust Storm alert is an effective warning and call to immediate action. The immediacy of the Storm Warning and its announcement of direction and distance would be a good extension for current weather radios.
Every critical automatic system should have an emergency ‘off’ button that is well labeled. Otto’s control might be poorly placed, but its use and implications are obvious to the captain in his moment of need.
The Hover Chair is a multi-use, omni-terrain mobility device that is comfortable and thoroughly addictive. It would be the ultimate Rascal scooter, and likely be as popular in real life as it is on the Axiom.
In many ways, The Social Network has already pervaded our society in programs like Skype. The major and dangerous change on the Axiom is that one program is getting all of a person’s attention at all times.
The Dropship. Very Inefficient. It shows that BNL likes complicating things, but isn’t very convincing as an activation sequence for an inter-planetary exploration pod.
The Lifeboat is excellent way to show how automated all of BNL’s technology has become, but a terrible layout for an emergency tool.
The project team (in the world of Wall•E) that built the Gatekeeper must have had an enormous budget, a massively talented team, and a top-flight project manager. It’s so exquisitely overbuilt in almost every possible way.
Regardless of which type they are, each says something very fundamental about Buy-N-Large’s design/engineering studios. A few of these interfaces feel so complicated and overly antagonistic to their users that it’s amazing they weren’t redesigned or updated at some point. Other interfaces feel like something that a person would encounter in those situations.
Fi: A (4 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?
Each interface shows BNL’s goal of saving people from thought and effort. Even when this costs people their privacy, their independence, or their ability to think critically it feels deliberate and intentional. Useful to the user? No. Useful to BNL? Yes. This is the core of BNL’s role in the story as the corporate antagonist, and the interfaces are crucial to telling that story.
Interfaces: B- (2.5 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?
I can see the Hover Chair as a product in a TV advertisement, and many of the interfaces like the Lifeboat and Otto’s Manual Control will likely be needed in real-life situations. The Hover Chair and Lifeboat serve as excellent prototypes of what not to do, and Otto’s control was designed exceptionally well).
Other cases, like the Audio Buttons and Eve’s Gun speak to specific situations on a post-apocalyptic Earth that will be hard to replicate. Hopefully, today’s arms manufacturers won’t create such dangerous energy weapons capable of being fired so easily. But there’s no way of knowing what kind of situations BNL had to plan for in their design, so no way of knowing just how bad the design actually is.
Final Grade A- (10 of 12), BLOCKBUSTER
Buy-N-Large is a case study in a pathologically helpful corporation stripping power and authority (and even critical thought) from citizens’ everyday life. What might look great on a vacation commercial ends up instead acting like the worst kind of drug on a person’s willpower and desire to think critically.
Designers should be careful of falling into these traps, and look to the Social Network as a lesson in what can happen when you only care about moment-to-moment happiness and profit.
Related lessons from the book
- Eve’s drop-off pod includes lots of immediate feedback that tightens the feedback loops. (page 20)
- Eve Extends her Hand to Shoot (just like the sixth gestural pidgin word, page 101).
- Wall-E’s range vision adhered to much of the Augmented Reality lessons (chapter 8), such as augmenting the periphery (page 162) and context awareness (page 165).
- Otto’s off switch and the Lifeboat Auto-Destruct confirm that red means danger. (page 44)
- Eve’s drop-off pod, the Lifeboat controls all scream for Labels, labels, labels.
- The Hover Chair implies many things
- A system should never fail into a worse state. (a New Lesson first seen on this blog with Logan’s Run.)
- Build assistants not solutions.
- Optimizing for the worst within us drags everyone down.
- Let users easily pause virtual worlds (out of respect for the real one).
- Explicitly in the Social Network writeup: Work With the Human Need and Build Products for More than just Fleeting Pleasure.