Short answer: Yes, through critique practice and design patterns. Longer answer follows.
Exactly like this.
Generally, improving my thinking
This is broad, but quite true. After making a practice of looking at interfaces systematically, and putting that critique into words that I can read, and vet, and feel comfortable posting on the frakking internet for anyone to read, I’ve gotten better at it. As a design manager, learning to quickly critique other’s work is invaluable. As a direct contributor, I can bring a more sophisticated real-time critique of my own ideas, which makes the design that much better, even doing pair design.
It would be easy to just rag on sci-fi interfaces. But having to put critiques of them out in the world, I have to understand that they’re created by talented (or at least well-meaning) people and I should seek to understand what they were doing, and even give an interface a thought pass, imagining that they’re not broken, but brilliant. That doesn’t always pay off, but when it does the results are golden. Deep insight that is shareable in fun memetic stories. So I’ve developed apologetics as part of my critiques, and it allows me to see the good in a design rather than just trashing them. Which is a lesson the whole Internet could take to heart, n’est-ce pas? Continue reading →
Yes, yes, yes! I agree. Way back when I started the blog, I modified a default WordPress theme and even I get frustrated with it sometimes. But I’m better at content than I am at WordPress design, and honestly would rather spend my time doing more writing and creating more reviews than selecting and modifying another template. Is there anyone who wants to volunteer to improve the template or suggest a new one? I’d love it. Email me at chrisscifiinterfaces.com if so.
Alternatively I might could run a kickstarter to see if we can raise the money for a professional WordPress developer to improve things. (This is an idea from another commenter, which I found awesome.) Until then, please comment with the particular problems you find frustrating, and I’ll see if I can incrementally improve those things in the meantime.
I’m a gamer myself, so I’m tempted to venture out. But there’s some stuff to discuss.
Let’s first distinguish between interfaces in cut-scenes, which are very much like the sci-fi interfaces I review here, and the interfaces of the games themselves.
Cut-scene interfaces are very much like the sci-fi interfaces reviewed on this blog. They might be a candidate for reviews. Except they don’t exit in isolation, they’re most often quite tied in with the game-itself interfaces, and those are entirely different beasts. The rest of this post discusses how different those beasts are.
Game-itself interfaces answer to different masters than sci-fi interfaces, even if on the surface they share surface similarities.
They are subject to pressures of usability, but the game is not meant to be perfectly usable. (That would be a button saying “win game.”)
They have to work exhaustively, meaning that if there’s a button it has to do something. sci-fi interfaces often have parts which actors are told work and parts they’re warned won’t.
Makers of sci-fi interfaces often tell the actor to just do their acting thing, and the makers will go back in later and backfill the interface around the actor’s motions. This of course affects the interface. Game-itself interfaces never backfill around users.
Sci-fi interface designers may have had no formal training in interaction design, and more around art and motion graphics. This makes those interfaces a kind of outsider art, which is kind of why they are sometimes brilliant and sometimes shite. (Even as more and more sci-fi interface studios are also doing real-world projects, they are clear about which one they’re working on.)
Game-itself interfaces are limited by the inputs of the gaming system: Keyboard or handheld controller. Sci-fi interfaces have little restrictions.
Sci-fi interfaces only occupy the full screen for at most seconds at a time. Game-itself interfaces are up the whole time during gameplay.
Sci-fi interfaces just always work. Even if the actor does something wrong, the effect that the story needs still happens.
Game-itself interfaces are customizable, so different people will be using different instantiations of the same thing.
Sci-fi interfaces have as their goal to tell the audience something, and can fudge most of the other semiotic layers beneath in the service of that. They mostly convey narrative information. A caused B change. C is happening. D is the intended plan. E is how F is doing this cool thing. The audience never has to use that information except in the service of understanding the story. Game-itself interfaces are about both the knowing and using that information directly.
The reviews would be different: we want to evaluate sci-fi interfaces for being believable, for how they contribute to the narrative, and what we can learn from them. game-itself interfaces would be reviewed for usability, for they equipped you to play the game. Just not the same thing.
So it’s because they are such different beasts, requiring a whole different conceptual framework, that I don’t think it’s right to include them here on this blog. There was a fellow a few years ago who started his own blog about game interface reviews, but I can’t find the blog URL in my inbox, or via search, but anyway I don’t think he was able to keep it up. Maybe he or someone else will be able to pick it up sometime.
But if someone started a blog on this topic (or wrote a nice in-depth article about it), I think it would be informative to analyses here. And heck, space agencies and sci-fi makers should pay attention to the lessons learned there.
Also I’m loathe to give too much attention to reviewing warfare and weapons interfaces. Hollywood already glamorizes war a little too much.
In the free-form answers, I came across some comments that bear a response. In this first post about those, I’ve aggregated a number of them that aren’t likely to need a comment thread associated with them. So here are some quick replies to these one-off comments.
Reader wish: More examples of interfaces, they don’t all have to be talked about exhaustively.
To this I must reply, firmly: No. Big no. Cosmic no. That’s my thing. My niche. It’s the whole brand promise here. If you just want a stream of images to be inspired by, takeyourpick, there are plenty. But for some damned fine reasons, I’m not interested in regurgitating screen caps. In fact the notion of just looking at the surface of these things is antithetical to this blog. I want to discourage drool-gazing (that sort of thing will land us in trouble) and encourage critical thinking. So…sorry, mate. Not going to happen. Your good news is there are other options for you!
Reader frustration: Ending a post with an implied follow-up and then switching to a different movie
Yes. Mea culpa. I am sorry. I know I left the Star Wars Holiday Special dangling for like two years and I still have The Avengers to finish. I tended to make progress on the Holiday Special near Star Wars movie releases. The Avengers is still there, waiting for me, but after that I will try to never do it again…
Reader compliant: Sometimes [the site] misses obscure BTS or frame-by-frame stuff I only know because I have a problem.
Ha. It sounds like you should be a contributor to the blog. (Pssst. Message me via chris[at]scifiinterfaces.com) And if contributing is too much, comment on individual posts. (You’ll have to head to the site if you’re an RSS person.) I would love to refine insights based on all the evidence, including missed details. Please! Let me know!
Reader request: More links to relevant research/thought
I think this is a request to include more references to better published or peer-reviewed thinking on germane subjects. I try to do this anyway, but please help. If you know of a related article that I missed, hop onto the site and post it in the comments.
Reader request: More facts about real world interfaces and solutions
I’ll try to do this, but it also presumes a lot of knowledge on my part. There’s so much software out there that I might not know everything. I try to do it when it’s relevant and I know of it. Similar to relevant research/thought above, if I miss something and you know of something, post it in the comments.
Reader complaint: When the subject clearly hasn’t any thought behind it, Dr Strange for example.
This is alarming, since well-reasoned analysis is the core brand promise here. (See my mini-screed above.) First I must disagree with disparagement of the Doctor Strange posts as an example. Note that it contains 4 posts detailing the thoughts around a magic cape. What’s not thought out there? Thinking is what this blog does.
Please head to the particular blog posts you’re thinking about, and add a comments, describing what you think it missed or how it could be developed more. Or, oh, even better yet, contribute a counter-post and submit it!
I’d love an article about space warfare interfaces. How multiple shows tackled vectors, 3D, prediction etc.
On principle I try not to review warfare interfaces. I get that it might be harmless in the context of computer gaming (I’m a gamer myself) but there’s the risk that I end up improving real-world ways to kill people more efficiently, which I’m loathe to do.
So unless it involves a benign pattern, I don’t plan on including these kinds of analyses. I can see the vague outlines of a counterargument in my head, but I’ll need to be convinced. Maybe it’s an opportunity for someone to start another blog? Maybe scifiwarfareinterfaces.com?
In the meantime, if you’re an RSS reader, know that I try to be good about content tags, so you can read up on non-warfare 3D (volumetric projection), and prediction. Haven’t seen anything about vectors, I think.
There are some posts about melee weapons, though, again, I try to focus analysis in ways that don’t improve their kill-y-ness.
OK. These done, now I’ll dedicate some posts to free-form back that probably does warrant separate comment threads.
33% of readers like that this is content that can’t be found anywhere else.
20% like learning more about interfaces in their favorite shows.
10% like how it sharpens their thinking around interaction design.
20% of people added a response of “all of the above” (the many slices) which is just awesome.
Your wish list
Many people asked for more frequent posts, and I wholly agree, but can’t do much about it. This is a labor of love, not a job, and I’m fitting it in to my schedule amongst work, marketing my new book, working on new stuff, and being a dad. (Wait. You know that I see maybe $5/month from this, right?)
I’d put the amount of work to review an average movie at 60 hours of work between screen cap, writing, formatting, and social medializing. The only chance I have of upping the frequency is to have more time (unlikely) or more authors, and while I have worked with a great team of them, none of them seem to have the time to do more than they already are/have. So, yeah, once/week is about as much as I can wrangle. Glad to know there’s demand?
Most readers see the site as a fun distraction, but nearly a third use it as inspiration for their design or sci-fi work. Around 16% just love getting more into the sci-fi they love. Fist bumps, fanpeeps.
Seems like half of you subscribe by RSS, 16% by Facebook and 16% by tweet. The RSS news came as lots of added answers, so is that choppy chunk on top. One enterprising reader has set up an IFTTT alert. (Sweet.) The RSS news was an informative surprise. I presumed most folks were receiving alerts via Twitter and Facebook, and click through to the blog. I now should start thinking about the fact that many articles are read without the “chrome” of the blog ever been seen.
I only asked after time zone, rather than location, which in retrospect was not smart. I was trying to figure when the best time to post was, but now I realize that wasn’t the only use of such information. Too late now. Maybe next year.
Looks like you’re concentrated in the middle of the Americas, and Lisbon/UK time zones. But there’s also readers on the continental-American coasts, Alaska(!), Europe, Southeast Asia, and what I suspect is Melbourne/Sydney. Hey look a chart.
WordPress gives me stats about the readership, too, but only down to the country. It largely agrees with the poll results, but I see that Japan may be happy reading but not so happy responding to polls. (A poll which was, admittedly, written in English.) If I crudely overlay the WordPress map to this map, looks like my anchors are North America, UK & Europe, and Eastern Australia. No surprise. English speaking worlds. (Though, I miss you, Ireland, South Africa, and New Zealand.)
Last summer, at the 5 year anniversary of the blog, I ran a readership poll. Thanks to everyone who took a few minutes back then to answer it (now closed). I know when I answer a poll I’m always curious about the results. So I presume you are, too. Here ya go.
First apologies on some aspects of the poll. I should have made some things multiple-choice, but by the time I caught it was too late. Shifting midway through the poll would mean I’d have to divide the results between radio-button and checkbox responses, and that would have been headachey. Next time, next time.
There were a total of 51 responses.
Overall, looks like me and the other authors are doing pretty good. 8 out of 10. Personally, I’ve always been a solid B+/A- student, so this plays out. 5 responders think the site is near god-like (that or they’re prone to hyperbole) and a couple of folks said we’re doing below average. Sorry, you two. Thanks for sticking with it.
Hey readers. One of scifiinterface’s writers, Hugh Fisher, is embarking on a cross-show analysis of speculative 3D file browsers. He first started thinking of it when viewing Hackers and remembering Jurassic Park. What others can you think of? (Yes, we know of Johnny Mnemonic, but it’s 3D cyberspace, not files, innit?)
Please list others you can think of in the comments (which is here for those reading RSS). The more detail you can provide, the better. And thanks in advance!
When The Star Wars Holiday Special aired, it was only one year after the first movie, and while Star Wars was an obvious success at the time, no one knew it was bound to become one of the world’s biggest media juggernauts, which would still be producing blockbuster movies in the same diegesis four decades later (with no end in sight). So we can understand, if not forgive, that it was produced as an afterthought, rather than giving it the full attention and deliberateness we’ve since come to expect from the franchise. In short it was a crass way to keep audiences—and the toy purchasing public—thinking about Star Wars until Empire could be released a year and a half later.
It was doomed from the start. CBS wanted to camp on the movie’s success, and stupidly thought to force-choke it into a variety show format, like The Sonny & Cher Jedi Hour or Donny & Marie, Sith Lords, Variety Show. At the time, Lucas couldn’t be bothered to provide much beyond the framework story and a “Wookiee Bible,” (mentioned here) which explained the background and behavior of the Wookiees, including the fact that they were the center of the story and they can only growl. The first director quit after shooting a few scenes. Other than The Faithful Wookiee, the whole thing seems obviously rushed to production. It had about 30 minutes of script that had to be stretched into 90 minutes of airtime. Though they pulled in some respectable TV names of the time (Harvey Korman, Bea Arthur, Art Carney) to carry the thing and even had the stars of the original cast, those actors couldn’t do much with what amounted to a salad of terrible ideas written by and for goldfish: people pegging the S meter on the Myers-Briggs test.
I’m quite fascinated by the Special partly for its narrative—for there is one, dishwater-flavored though it is—which requires us to be in the narrative and yet out of it at the same time, depending on the need, switching back and forth at a moment’s notice. For instance, you must dismiss the fact that Malla would have any interest in pausing her day for 5 minutes to stare at a security camera feed from inside a shop, because you know the point is the scene in the shop. Or, we dismiss the awkwardness of Itchy watching cross-species VR erotica in the family living room because we know that the point is the Mermeia Wow number. Or, we dismiss the tragic implication that Malla may be mentally challenged, because she takes a comedy cooking skit as literal instructions she should attempt to follow, because we know the point is the “comedy.” But how do we (or the toy-purchasing kids that were the target audience) know which parts to dismiss and which parts to indulge? There are no explicit clues. These are fascinating mental jumps for us to have to make.
It’s also interesting from a sci-fi interfaces point of view because, like most children’s shows, the interfaces are worse than an afterthought. They are created by adults (who don’t understand interaction design) merely to signal high-techn-ess to kids, whom they mistakenly believe aren’t very observant, and they do so under insane budgetary and time constraints. So they half-ass what they can, at best, half-ass, and the result is, well, the interfaces from The Star Wars Holiday Special.
Ordinarily I like to reinforce the notions that what designers are doing in reading this blog is building up a necessary skepticism against sci-fi (and plundering it for great ideas, intentional or otherwise), but in this case I can’t really back that up. What we’re doing here is just staring agape in amazement at what can come out of the illusion machine when everything goes wrong.
But, to compare apples-to-oranges, let’s go through the analysis categories:
Sci: F (0 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?
They are all not just props but obvious props. Straight up tape recorders. Confusing and contradictory user flows. A secret rebel communication device that shrilly…rings. Generally when they are believable, they are very mundane. Like, I’d say the Chef Gourmaand recipe selector or Saun Dann’s final use of the Imperial Comms (which contradicts Malla’s use of the same device.) The Special interfaces break believability all over the place and in terrible ways.
Fi: F (0 of 4) How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?
If I’m being charitable, maaaaaybe some of them help set the tone? The holocircus and cartoon player tell of the gee-whiz high-tech world of this galaxy far far away. But the Groomer, the Jefferson Projection, and the living room masturbation chair are pointless (and unnerving) diversions that distract. Any goodness in Lumpy’s cartoon player is strictly accidental and depend on heavy apologetics. The Life Day orbs have some nice features, but they’re almost extradiegetic, a cinematic conceit. Admittedly the show only gave a nod to a central narrative anyway because of its genre, but it cannot be said that the interfaces inform the narrative.
Interfaces: F (0 of 4) How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?
This is the easiest rating to get, because it’s the thing movies are usually good at. But with the complicated and contradictory flows of the Imperial Comms, “secret” interfaces that rat out the users, extraneous controls and terrible interaction models, these interfaces are a hindrance much more than a help.
I have not had a review at 0 before, so I had to invent the category name. Now if my ratings were recommendations, The Star Wars Holiday Special would get a MUST-SEE, but for cultural reasons. Like, you must see it because otherwise you would not believe it is real. But for inspiration or even skepticism-building, it’s only useful except as a cautionary tale.
For some reason the Special got a lot of attention this past December (c.f. Vanity Fair, Vox, the Nerdist, Newsweek, Mental Floss) which makes me think it was a concentrated stealth push by Disney to coincide with the release of The Last Jedi. Or maybe it’s just other writers, like me, are filled with a kind of psychological wound that the new films always reopen. A fear that we will once again he asked to watch a stormtrooper watch a “holographic” music video with questionable silhouettes.
Whatever their reasons for talking about the Special, for me it serves as a reminder, kind of likeThe Laughing Gnome or perhaps Spider-Man 3, that even the greats occasionally have to overcome massive, embarrassing, WTF mistakes.
And with that, the review is done. I have gone into the Wampa cave and come out alive. Godspeed, Star Wars Holiday Special.