[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!)
In the case of weapons systems like that aiming HUD is attached to, a man in the loop is often more vital than a fully automated system. For example, what if the bad guy’s spaceship is carrying one of your people, or what if the computers IFF routine malfunctions, you want the person manning the gun to make the ultimate firing decision, even if he’s not as fast as the computer. This interface clearly has redundancy in mind, as the guns also feature an ironsight that can be used even if the HUD isn’t working.
I can’t tell much because I’ve never been into designing Sci-Fi objects that much. Some weapons here, some starships there, all drafts in a pile of notebooks. But I can remember the evolution in my inspirations in time.
As an early teen, I was in love with Sci-Fi movies and games, and I made a funny thing with a friend, that was kind of a “futuristic imagination war” : we both designed civilizations of our own, all on paper, with their culture, hierarchy, buildings and technology. We worked on that at home, alone, then meet up at school and see what was the other one made. They were dome cities, plasma turrets, sunlight powered engines, etc… I even remember drawing a rip-off of the TIE fighter trying to figure out what was the use of its parts (there wasn’t big info about films before internet). Then, we would get back home and work a way to counter the opponent’s technology and military advantages.
With time, I still enjoy Sci-Fi technologies for the imagination it brings to the young audience, but personally, I refer much to reality and trying to make it work in my mind, for example I have a tiny transport ship called the Walrus, and it looks like both a transportation truck (just bigger in size), and a walrus (it’s “tooth” being the place where all the communication devices are). Apart from that, this is basically how I work : I find a lovely designed object (or even animal), then I work on that shape to make it work in a Sci-Fi purpose.
Hope that comment wasn’t too long ^^
Not too long at all. Pretty cool, I’d say. 🙂
A bit late to this but I too can say the reviews I wrote (and read) here helped me discover new patterns and interactions that can, more or less, be applied to real interfaces, even if from completely different areas or industries.
And while I do struggle with visual design (how did you even managed to dodge that for 20 years?), I like to think these made me a bit more critical too. Even the bad ones at least teach you how NOT to do something.
I often mention it on design interviews and people laugh but hey, if these are useful for a design director then they are good for me.