8 reasons you (yes, you) should study sci-fi interfaces

In a recent email exchange, Olli Sulopuisto of Nonfiktio (trigger warning: Finnish) asked me a damned fine question. I’m a fan of damned fine questions, and occasionally my answers make it out into the world.

His damned fine question(s) follow(s).

…is studying movie UIs, I dunno, useful? As in—does it function as an exercise, the same as breaking down and analyzing any UI would? Have you learned something from sci-fi interfaces that would’ve been more difficult or impossible to gain by other means?

What follows is a slightly edited version of my response to him. If you’re short on time, the short answer is “Yes,” but the fun comes in the form of this longer answer.

1. You build necessary skepticism.

Scifi is so very cool that—if we watch it but don’t study it—our stupid brains want to believe because it’s so cool that it also must be good and desirable. You might want the stuff you design to be like the stuff you’ve seen in the movies, when in fact even the cool stuff (maybe especially the cool stuff) would cause disasters in the real world. So studying it critically is important to build up your design immune system, your critical eye, so you are not led astray.

I speak about this in the Gorgeous+Catastrophic talk.

2. You get their good ideas

Sci-fi is outsider art as far as interaction design and usability is concerned, and those whackball outsiders have occasionally come up with some really, really cool ideas for how it could work in the real world. This is infrequent. This can often fly by your attention amidst all the swirling spectacle, but when you find these gems, they can inform your work.

One example is the hierarchical scaling of imperial holograms in Star Wars. It’s right for the audience for some solid psychological reasons, and so should be considered when designing similar systems in the real world. Studying sci-fi is like having an advisor wholly concerned with blue sky thinking on your team. Useful to have in the mix.

I speak about this interface near the end of the talk that Nathan and I have given about “Influences.”

3. You can use their bad ideas to come up with good ones.

Sometimes, sci-fi gets it right without intending to. The gunner seat in the Millennium Falcon is my favorite example. When you first realize that sound can’t travel through space you want to dismiss it, but then you realize that if it was smart, the interface would add that sound in because it is incredibly useful field information for the gunner to have. This only becomes obvious through the technique of apologetics, which requires careful study to find what’s broken and then see if you can think yourself through to why it’s brilliant.

I speak about this in the “Apologetics” talk, last given in the Netherlands at The Web and Beyond conference.

4. You can avoid their mistakes

When sci-fi gets it wrong they can get it very wrong, and it’s rarely because they’re not trying. Much of it will be because they’re working towards different goals than real-world designers, and they don’t need to care about the same things we care about. But some of it will be because they didn’t think it through, and the actors will do what the script requires, even if it doesn’t make sense to us. These moments can be instructive and serve as a touchstone for what not to do in your own design work.

See the anti-examples in the “Influences” talk linked above.

5. It’s great analytical and design practice.

In reviewing dozens and dozens of sci-fi UIs, I’ve gotten good at quickly and thoroughly being able to review interfaces in the real world. To apologize for them. To learn from them and yes improve them. I have 100 years of sci-fi interfaces to sharpen my skills on. One handful of anecdotes supporting this is that attendees tell me the workshop I run, Redesigning Star Wars, is one of their favorite of all time.

Read more about the first run of this workshop on the InUse blog.

6. It’s speculative-tech literacy.

App experience is so fragmented there are only a few that you can count on others on your design team having. Browsers? But Minority Report is over 15 years old, and I can still reference the precrime scrubber and you know exactly what I mean. But you also need to be able to critique these pernicious things when they come up. Why is it good? Why is it not good? What do you tell your client or your design partner when they suggest it as a model for something? Note that sci-fi is the number 2 box office genre, so if you don’t know at least the big movies, you’re missing out on something that may be in the minds of your collaborators and audience, influencing how they think about and use your interfaces.

I speak about the Minority Report interface as part of the “Best and Worst Interfaces” talk, as given at the BoingBoing Ingenuity conference.

7. Its blind spots are rich mines.

Studying sci-fi and comparing it to the real world has led me to understand its blind spots, and even develop an understanding of what we need to be thinking about that it doesn’t include, that it’s not good at thinking about: agentive tech.Remember the pilot episode of Firefly? Mal climbs up on an anti-aircraft weapon to defend Serenity Valley from the horrible Alliance. The HUD shows two reticles: One where the weapon will fire, and the digital one where the bad guy is. An an audience we know what Mal’s job is: Put the two reticles together and pull the trigger. But, you have to ask, if the weapon knows where the bad guy is, why is it waiting for Mal to position it? It could do it better and more precisely than he can. We want him pulling the trigger, because that’s an ethics call, but the computer will be better at aiming.

I know I’ve spoken about this on stage, but I can’t find it. Some of my thinking of this appeared on the blog when I was reviewing a particularly dumb scene in Starship Troopers.

Coming to understand the blind spots takes a long time, since it takes a fairly exhaustive study, but hey, that’s part of why I keep a blog, so you can benefit from my nerdy work.

8. It inspires big thinking.

If designers always work from what they know can be done with the materials they’re familiar with, I’d assert that they will only come up with incremental improvements over what’s come before. Those aren’t bad (in fact very important for usability’s sake) but we also have to keep in mind the big opportunities of disrupting an industry for the better.To inspire those, you need a way to dream big, to imagine what the thing would be like if it was just…awesome. Free of constraints. World-changing. Sci-fi is a fun and familiar framework in which to do that for technology.

The Redesigning Star Wars workshop (linked above) is great practice at using at least that diegesis as big-thinking inspiration.

Could you get these things elsewhere?

I may be biased, but I don’t think so. What other medium has us in as much of a thrall and focuses on future technology and society in such a visual and visceral way? Video games, maybe, though cut scenes are pretty much sci-fi, so kind of entailed, and the actual interfaces used by the player are subject to real-world usability forces, so won’t be the same level of Out There. But video games come close.
Practice can certainly be had against interfaces in the real world, but then you miss out on the crazy ideas sci-fi puts out there, which is half the fun.
So, no, I’d say most—not all—of this is germane to the study of sci-fi interfaces. They’re fun, instructive, important, outsider art that you can benefit greatly from studying.
And if you don’t have the time to study it, hey, I happen to keep a blog where I post the results of smart people who are. 🙂

7 thoughts on “8 reasons you (yes, you) should study sci-fi interfaces

    • In the book and the linked presentation, I show that the Imperial volumetric projections are scaled for hierarchy. Boss VP is giant, subordinate VP smaller. This fits with their authoritarian sense of hierarchy. Contrast that with the Jedi, for whom the VP representations are almost always the same size, showing how (on the surface at least) they value egalitarianism.

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