[This is a one-off request from the most recent readership poll.]
Short answer: Yes, through critique practice and design patterns. Longer answer follows.
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?
I’ve spoken at conferences about the risk in conflating sci-fi interfaces’ cinematic coolness with their real-world goodness. By systematically, pedantically, deconstructing them to understand them, I feel more confident in my ability to not get misled by the cool things I see in movies and TV.
A rich backpack of inspirations
At the same time as I’m building up skepticism, I have to admit that these interfaces are really, really cool. In getting to know the survey intimately, I have a century-wide pool of examples and inspiration to pull from when tackling a new design problem.
Giving me new patterns to work with
Occasionally I’ll run into genuine new patterns (in the Alexander sense) that I can incorporate into my work. Should I need to design a chat feature, I can always remember the Empire and consider a hierarchical display option as seen in the Star Wars volumetric projection interfaces.
But let me give a more concrete answer. Big thoughts often coalesce from many places at once, and my latest book was just that. One major place it came from was an analysis of the HUD in the Firefly pilot, i.e. If the HUD (above) knows where the bad guy is, why does it ask Mal to aim it? It seemed like Hollywood had this conceptual challenge, and then I realized that humans may have, too. We don’t like the thought that computers can do some things better than us, but they can. Then after doing a lot of exploration, realizing they do, and more importantly, in some domains, they should. No one had written a book about it, so I did. And part of it came out of sci-fi.
You may be surprised to note that I don’t get visual ideas from sci-fi. Part of that is I haven’t done visual design for interfaces in about 20 years. Part of it is I really am a function guy at heart. Other people are really vested in the presentation layer (and it’s very important to the success of a given interface) but that’s not me.
I realize all this is kind of vague, but without giving away client IP, that’s the most concrete answer I could give, reader. Here’s one for you: Has anything in sci-fi ever influenced your design work? (Comment! Comment!)