The Thanatorium: Usher Panel

The thanatorium is a speculative device for assisted suicide in Soylent Green. Suicide and death are not easy topics and I will do my best to address them seriously. Let me first take a moment to direct anyone who is considering or dealing with suicide to please stop reading this and talk to someone about it. I am unqualified to address—and this blog is not the place to work through—such issues.

There are four experiences to look at in the interface and service design of the Thanatorium: The patient, their beneficiaries, the usher to the beneficiaries, and the attendants to the patient. This post is about the interface for the usher. This Thanatorium personnel is there as a stage manager of sorts, both to help the patient and the beneficiaries go where they need to go, ensure the beneficiaries do not do what they must not, and run the tech aspects of the ceremony.

The usher, left, ushing.

Note that—as I backworlded in the last post—these notes presume that the reason the beneficiaries are separated from the patients are to prevent them from trying to stop the event, and to minimize distractions during the cinerama display for gross biochemical reasons. Also recall that we’re having to go with a best-guess as to what the usual experience is, since we only see Thorn’s tardy thuggery in the film.

The usher’s tasks

Based on what we see in the film, the usher has a lot to do for each event…

  • Receive the patient’s preferences (music category, color, whatever other questions intake asked before we join that scene) from the intake personnel 
  • Escort the patient to the “theater” and the beneficiaries to the observation room
  • Set the color of the light and the music to the patient’s preferences
  • Close the portal for the hemlock drinking
  • Open the portal for last farewells
  • Close the portal for the cinerama display
  • Start the cinerama display
  • Get help if the patient gets up or otherwise interrupts the ceremony
  • Wait for when the patient dies
  • Open the portal to view the body’s being shuttled away
  • Ensure the beneficiaries behave, answer any questions
  • Escort the beneficiaries back to the lobby
A screen shot from the movie showing the existing usher panel.

The interface barely touches on any of this

With all that in mind, we can see that this interface is woefully ill-equipped for any of his tasks. In the prior post I argue that the features for speaking to the patient—the speaker, the audio jack, and the SPEAKING PERMITTED indicator—should be separated from the usher’s stage manager functions. So we’re only going to pay attention in this post to the row of backlit rocker toggles labeled PORTAL, EFFECTS, CHAMBER 2, AUDIO, VISUAL, CHAMBER 1 and a little bit of the authorization key that looks like a square metal button in the screen cap above. And note I’m going to make suggestions that are appropriate to the early 1970s rather than use either modern real-world or speculative interface technologies.

First, that authorization key is pretty cool

The fact that it’s a featureless, long metal cuboid is so simple it feels sci-fi. Even the fact that its slot is unlabeled is good—it would help prevent a malicious or grief-panicked user from figuring out how to take control. You could even go one step further and have a hidden magnetic switch, so there’s not even a slot to clue in users. Production designer note, though, this means that the panel needs to be wood (or something non-magnetic) rather than a ferromagnetic metal. Aluminum, maybe, since it’s paramagnetic, but you also don’t want anything that can scratch or wear easily and give away the position of the secret spot.

A side view of a magnetic cabinet lock. When the magnet gets close to the right spot on the cabinet door, it pulls the latching mechanism open, allowing the door to be opened.
This is a cabinet lock, but the same principle would apply.

But, the buttons don’t match the scene

The PORTAL button never changes state, though we see the portal open and close in the scene. AUDIO is dim though we hear the audio. Maybe dim equals on? No, because VISUAL is lit. There’s some gymnastics we could do to apologize for this, but Imma give up and just say it’s just a moviemaking error.

And they are poorly clustered

Why is CHAMBER 2 before CHAMBER 1? Why are the three AV buttons split up by CHAMBER 2? A more reasonable chunking of these would be PORTAL on its own, CHAMBER 1 & CHAMBER 2 together, and the remaining A/V buttons together. These groups should be separated to make them easier to identify and help avoid accidental activation (though the stakes here are pretty low.)

One square by itself labeled PORTAL. Two squares side-by-side labeled CHAMBER 1 and CHAMBER 2. And three squares together labeled AUDIO, VISUAL, and EFFECTS.
If we were just dealing with these 6 buttons, this might be a reasonable clustering. But, read on…

The PORTAL button is the wrong type and orientation

Look close at the screen shot and you’ll see that each button consists of three parts. A white, back-lit square which bears the label, and two black pushbuttons that act like rocker switches. That is, press the upper one in, and the lower one pops out. Press that popped-out lower one in, and the upper one pops out again. When the lower button is pressed in, the button is “on,” which you can tell because those are the only ones with the upper button popped out and the back light illuminated.

Rocker switches are good for things with two mutually exclusive states, like ON and OFF. The PORTAL button is the only one for which this makes unambiguous sense, with its two states being OPEN and CLOSED. But, we have to note that it is poorly mapped. The button has a vertical orientation, but the portal closes from right to left. It means the usher has to memorize which toggle state is open and which one is closed. It would more usable to have an inferrable affordance. Cheapest would be to turn the button sideways so it maps more clearly, but an even tighter mapping would be a slider mounted sideways with OPEN and CLOSED labels. I don’t think the backlit status indicator is necessary here because there’s already a giant signal of the state of the portal, and that’s the adjacent portal.

An image of a slider switch.

What do EFFECTS and CHAMBER even do?

What does the EFFECTS button do? I mean, if AUDIO and VISUAL have their own controls, what’s left? Lasers? A smoke machine? Happiness pheromones? (I’m getting The Cabin in the Woods vibes here.) Whatever it is, if there are multiple, they should have individual controls, in case the patient wants one but not the other, or if there’s any variability that needs controlling.

Also what do CHAMBER 1 and CHAMBER 2 do? It’s very poor labeling. What chambers do they refer to? Maybe the observation room is chamber 1 and the theater is chamber 2? If so, different names could save the usher’s having to memorize them. Also, what do these switches control? Lights? Door locks? We would need to know to really make design recommendations for these.

The AV controls are incomplete

Which takes us to AUDIO, and VISUAL. Each of these is missing something.

Sure, they might need ON/OFF controls as we see here. But how about a volume control to accommodate the hard-of-hearing and the sound-sensitive? How about a brightness control for the video? These could have an OFF state and replace the toggle switches.

We know from the movie itself that the service has offered Sol his choice of music genre. Where is the genre selector? This is a non-trivial problem since the number of genres is on the order of 1000. They probably don’t offer all of them, but at intake they do ask Sol his preference as an open-ended question, so it implies a huge selection. Radio band selectors would have made sense to audiences in the 1970s, and signal a huge number of options, but risk being “out of tune” and imply that it’s broadcast. So either have a small number of options with a 15° rotary switch (and rewrite the intake scene so Sol selects from a menu) or three 10-digit rotary switches with a “commit” momentary button, and have a small reference booklet hanging there.

I also want to believe that the theme of the video can be selected. Sol has chosen “nature” but you could imagine patients requesting for their end-of-life ceremony something else like “family,” “celestial,” “food” (given the diegesis, this should be first) or even “religious” (with a different one for each of the world’s twelve major religions). So it would make sense to have a video theme selector as well, say, on the order of 20 options. That could be a 15° rotary switch. Labeling gets tough, but it could just be numbers with an index label to the side.

An image showing the components of such a video selector, including the label.

I’m going to presume that they never need scrubbing controls (REWIND or FAST FORWARD) for the AV. The cinerama plays through once and stops. Sudden rewinding or fast forwarding would be jarring for the patient and ruin the immersion. Have a play button that remains depressed while the cinerama is ongoing. But if the patient passes more quickly than expected, a RESET button would make sense. So would a clock or a countdown timer, since Sol had confirmed at intake that it would be at least 20 minutes, and to let the usher know how much time they have left to get those neurotransmitter numbers up up up.

Some controls are straight up missing

How does an usher set the lights according to the patient’s preferences? They ask at intake, and we see Sol’s face washed with a soothing amber color once the attendants leave, so there should be a color selector. Three RGB slide potentiometers would provide perfect control, but I doubt anyone would quibble that the green they’d asked for was #009440 and not #96b300, so you could go with a selector. The XKCD color survey results show that there are on the order of about 30 colors, so something similar to the video-theme selector above would work, with a brightness potentiometer to the side.

XKCD color graph showing the outlines with crowdsourced regions and labels. But please check out the full post as linked in the image caption. It’s so much more awesome than just this.
I will always be in awe of this undertaking and visualization, Randall Monroe.

These controls ought to be there

The patient experience is a bit of a show, so to signal its beginning and end, there should be lighting controls for the usher to dim and raise the lights, like in a theater. So let’s add those.

Also, the usher has a minor medical task to accomplish: Monitoring the health of the patient to know when they’ve passed. The three metrics for clinical death are a cessation of all three of…

  1. breath
  2. blood flow
  3. brain activity

…so there should be indicators for each of these. As discussed in the medical chapter of the book, this is ideally a display of values over time, but in the resource-poor and elecromechanical world of Soylent Green, it might have to be a collection of gauges, with an indicator bulb near the zero for when activity has stopped. A final, larger indicator bulb should light when all three gauges are still. To really underscore the morbidness of this interface, all those indicators should be green.

A comp showing the three clinical death gauges and incdicators, as described.

If you buy my backworlding, i.e. that part of the point of preventing interruptions is to maximize the dopamine and serotonin being released into the patient’s body, there should also be status indicators showing the level of these neurotransmitters in the patient’s bloodstream. They can be the same style of gauges, but I’d add a hand drawn arrow to some point along the chapter ring that reads “quota.” Those indicators should be larger than the clinical death indicators to match their importance to Soylent’s purposes.

Lastly, thinking of Thorn’s attack, the usher should have a panic button to summon help if the patient or the beneficiaries are getting violent (especially once they discover they’re locked in.) This should be hidden under the panel so it can be depressed secretly.

Where should this panel go?

As described in the beneficiaries post we’re going to leave the communication interface just below the portal, where they are now for those fleeting moments when they can wish the patient goodbye.

A screen shot of the movie showing Thorn at the portal addressing the usher, angrily, as usual.

And there’s no need to put the usher’s controls under the nose of the beneficiaries. (In fact with the medical monitoring it would be kind of cruel.) So let the usher have a lectern beside the door, in a dim pool of light, and mount the controls to the reading top. (Also give them a stool to rest on, have we learned nothing?) Turn the lectern such that the interface is not visible to beneficiaries in the room. This lets the usher remain respectfully out of the center of attention, but in a place where they can keep an eye on both the patient when the portal is open, and the beneficiaries throughout.

An image of a lectern
Looks cheap? Perfect.

In total, the lectern panel would look something like this…

The “READY” indicators are explained in the attendant’s post.

…and the scene could go something like this…

  • Interior. Thanatorium observation room.
  • The Usher escorts Thorn into the room. Thorn rushes to the portal. The usher steps behind a lectern near the door.
  • Usher
  • It’s truly a shame you missed the overture.
  • The Usher slides a switch on the lectern panel, and the portal closes.
  • Thorn
  • I want to see him.
  • Usher, looking down at his interface
  • That is prohibited during the ceremony.
  • Worm’s eye view. Thorn takes a few steps toward him and knocks the lectern to the ground. It falls with its interface in the foreground. In the background, we see Thorn slam the usher against the wall.
  • Thorn
  • Well I can assure you, open that damned thing right now, or I swear to God you’ll die before he does!
  • Usher
  • OK, OK!
  • The usher falls to his hands and knees and we see him slide the switch to open the portal. Thorn steps back to it, and the usher gets on his feet to right the lectern

The Thanatorium: A beneficiary’s experience

The thanatorium is a speculative service for assisted suicide in Soylent Green. Suicide and death are not easy topics and I will do my best to address them seriously. Let me first take a moment to direct anyone who is considering or dealing with suicide to please stop reading this and talk to someone about it. I am unqualified to address—and this blog is not the place to work through—such issues.

There are four experiences to look at in the interface and service design of the Thanatorium: The patient, their beneficiaries, the usher, and the attendants to the patient. This post is about the least complicated of the bunch, the beneficiaries.

Thorn’s experience

We have to do a little extrapolation here because the way we see it in the movie is not the way we imagine it would work normally. What we see is Thorn entering the building and telling staff there to take him to Sol. He is escorted to an observation room labeled “beneficiaries only” by an usher. (Details about the powerful worldbuilding present in this label can be found in the prior post.) Sol has already drunk the “hemlock” drink by the time Thorn enters this room, so Sol is already dying and the robed room attendants have already left.

Aaand I just noticed that the walls are the same color as the Soylent. Ewww.

This room has a window view of the “theater” proper, with an interface mounted just below the window. At the top of this interface is a mounted microphone. Directly below is an intercom speaker beside a large status alert labeled SPEAKING PERMITTED. When we first see the panel this indicator is off. At the bottom is a plug for headphones to the left, a slot for a square authorization key, and in the middle, a row of square, backlit toggle buttons labeled PORTAL, EFFECTS, CHAMBER 2, AUDIO, VISUAL, and CHAMBER 1. When the Sol is mid-show, EFFECTS and VISUAL are the only buttons that are lit.

When the usher closes the viewing window, explaining that it’s against policy for beneficiaries to view the ceremony, Thorn…uh…chokes him in order to persuade him to let him override the policy.


“Persuaded,” the usher puts his authorization key back in the slot. The window opens again. Thorn observes the ceremony in awe, having never seen the beautiful Earth of Sol’s youth. He mutters “I didn’t know” and “How could I?” as he watches. Sol tries weakly to tell Thorn something, but the speaker starts glitching, with the SPEAKING PERMITTED INDICATOR flashing on and off. Thorn, helpfully, pounds his fist on the panel and demands that the usher do something to fix it. The user gives Thorn wired earbuds and Thorn continues his conversation. (Extradiegetically, is this so they didn’t have to bother with the usher’s overhearing the conversation? I don’t understand this beat.) The SPEAKING PERMITTED light glows a solid red and they finish their conversation.

Yes, that cable jumps back and forth like that in the movie during the glitch. It was a simpler time.

Sol dies, and the lights come up in the chamber. Two assistants come to push the gurney along a track through a hidden door. Some mechanism in the floor catches the gurney, and the cadaver is whisked away from Thorn’s sight.

Regular experience?

So that’s Thorns corrupt, thuggish cop experience of the thanatorium. Let’s now make some educated guesses about what this might imply for the regular, non-thug experience for beneficiaries.

  1. The patient and beneficiaries enter the building and greeted by staff.
  2. They wait in queue in the lobby for their turn.
  3. The patient is taken by attendants to the “theater” and the beneficiaries taken by the usher to the observation room.
  4. Beneficiaries witness the drinking of the hemlock.
  5. The patient has a moment to talk with the beneficiaries and say their final farewells.
  6. The viewing window is closed as the patient watches the “cinerama” display and dies. The beneficiaries wait quietly in the observation room with the usher.
  7. The viewing window is opened as they watch the attendants wheel the body into the portal.
  8. They return to the lobby to sign some documents for benefits and depart.

So, some UX questions/backworlding

We have to backworld some of the design rationales involved to ground critique and design improvements. After all, design is the optimization of a system for a set of effects, and we want to be certain about what effects we’re targeting. So…

Why would beneficiaries be separated from the patient?

I imagine that the patient might take comfort from holding the hands or being near their loved ones (even if that set didn’t perfectly overlap with their beneficiaries). So why is there a separate viewing room? There are a handful of reasons I can imagine, only one of which is really satisfying.

Maybe it’s to prevent the spread of disease? Certainly given our current multiple pandemics, we understand the need for physical separation in a medical setting. But the movie doesn’t make any fuss about disease being a problem (though with 132,000 people crammed into every square mile of the New York City metropolitan area you’d figure it would be), and in Sol’s case, there’s zero evidence in the film that he’s sick. Why does the usher resist the request from Thorn if this was the case? And why wouldn’t the attendants be in some sort of personal protective gear?

Maybe it’s to hide the ugly facts of dying? Real death is more disconcerting to see than most people are familiar with (take the death rattle as one example) and witnessing it might discourage other citizens from opting-in for the same themselves. But, we see that Sol just passes peacefully from the hemlock drink, so this isn’t really at play here.

Maybe it’s to keep the cinerama experience hidden? It’s showing pictures of an old, bountiful earth that—in the diegesis—no longer exists. Thorn says in the movie that he’s too young to know what “old earth” was like, so maybe this society wants to prevent false hope? Or maybe to prevent rioting, should the truth of How Far We’ve Fallen get out? Or maybe it’s considered a reward for patients opting-in to suicide, thereby creating a false scarcity to further incentivize people to opt-in themselves? None of this is super compelling, and we have to ask, why does the usher give in and open the viewport if any of this was the case?

That blue-green in the upper left of this still is the observation booth.

So, maybe it’s to prevent beneficiaries from trying to interfere with the suicide. This society would want impediments against last-minute shouts of, “Wait! Don’t do it!” There’s some slight evidence against this, as when Sol is drinking the Hemlock, the viewing port is wide open, so beneficiaries might have pounded on the window if this was standard operating procedure. But its being open might have been an artifact of Sol’s having walked in without any beneficiaries. Maybe the viewport is ordinarily closed until after the hemlock, opened for final farewells, closed for the cinerama, and opened again to watch as the body is sped away?

Ecstasy Meat

This rationale supports another, more horrible argument. What if the reason is that Soylent (the company) wants the patient to have an uninterrupted dopamine and seratonin hit at the point of dying, so those neurotransmitters are maximally available in the “meat” before processing? (Like how antibiotics get passed along to meat-eaters in industrialized food today.) It would explain why they ask Sol for his favorite color in the lobby. Yes it is for his pleasure, but not for humane reasons. It’s so he can be at his happiest at the point of death. Dopamine and seratonin would make the resulting product, Soylent green, more pleasurable and addictive to consumers. That gives an additional rationale as to why beneficiaries would be prevented from speaking—it would distract from patients’ intense, pleasurable experience of the cinerama.

A quickly-comped up speculative banner ad reading “You want to feel GOOD GOOD. Load up on Soylent Green today!”
Now, with more Clarendon.

For my money, the “ecstasy meat” rationale reinforces and makes worse the movie’s Dark Secret, so I’m going to go with that. Without this rationale, I’d say rewrite the scene so beneficiaries are in the room with the patient. But with this rationale, let’s keep the rooms separate.

Beneficiary interfaces

Which leads us to rethinking this interface.

Beneficiary interfaces

A first usability note is that the SPEAKING PERMITTED indicator is very confusing. The white text on a black background looks like speaking is, currently, permitted. But then the light behind it illuminates and I guess, then speaking is permitted? But wait, the light is red, so does that mean it’s not permitted, or is? And then adding to the confusion, it blinks. Is that the glitching, or some third state? Can we send this to its own interface thanatorium? So to make this indicator more usable, we could do a couple of things.

  • Put a ring of lights around the microphone and grill. When illuminated, speaking is permitted. This presumes that the audience can infer what these lights mean, and isn’t accessible to unsighted users, but I don’t think the audio glitch is a major plot point that needs that much reinforcing; see above. If the execs just have to have it crystal clear, then you could…
  • Have two indicators, one reading SPEAKING PERMITTED and another reading SILENCE PLEASE, with one or the other always lit. If you had to do it on the cheap, they don’t need to be backlit panels, but just two labeled indicator lamps would do.

And no effing blinking.


I think part of the affective purpose of the interface is to show how cold and mechanistic the thanatorium’s treatment of people are. To keep that, you could add another indicator light on the panel labeled somewhat cryptically, PATIENT. Have it illuminated until Sol passes, and then have a close up shot when it fades, indicating his death.

Ah, yes, good to have a reminder that’s why he’s a critic and not a working FUI designer.

A note on art direction. It would be in Soylent’s and our-real-world interest to make this interface feel as humane as possible. Maybe less steel and backlit toggles? Then again, this world is operating on fumes, so they would make do with what’s available. So this should also feel a little more strung together, maybe with some wires sticking out held together with electrical tape and tape holding the audio jack in place.

Last note on the accommodations. What are the beneficiaries supposed to do while the patient is watching the cinerama display? Stand there and look awkward? Let’s get some seats in here and pipe the patient’s selection of music in. That way they can listen and think of the patient in the next room.

If you really want it to feel extradiegetically heartless, put a clock on the wall by the viewing window that beneficiaries can check.

Once we simplify this panel and make the room make design sense, we have to figure out what to do with the usher’s interface elements that we’ve just removed, and that’s the next post.

Thanatorium: “Beneficiaries” only

In the subsequent post of the Soylent Green reviews, I’m going to talk about the design of the viewing room and the interface there. But first I need to talk about the design of something outside the viewing room. When Thorn enters the building and tells the staff there to take him to Sol, who is there to commit suicide, they pass a label on the wall reading “beneficiaries only.” This post is about the heavy worldbuilding provided by the choice of that one word, “beneficiaries.”

Here let me repeat my mantra that suicide is not an easy topic. Anyone who is considering or dealing with suicide to please stop reading this and talk to someone about it. I am unqualified to address—and this blog is not the place to work through—such issues.

It’s totally weird to call the people witnessing the suicide “beneficiaries,” right? Like their defining characteristic is that they get something out of the death? That’s crass. Shouldn’t they be called “loved ones” or something more sensitive?

To answer that question, we need to talk about Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, seen here in a still from the movie.

Just to be clear, this is not an actual still. This is a Midjourney image.

In 1798, this clergyman anonymously published a book called An Essay on the Principle of Population, Chapter 11 of which describes what has come to be known as a Malthusian Crisis. This happens when a given population, which tends to grow exponentially, surpasses its ability to feed itself, which tends to grow linearly. The result is a period of strife, starvation, and warfare where the population numbers “correct themselves” back down to what can be sustained.

It would be irresponsible of me to invoke Malthus without pointing out that many people have taken this argument to dark and unethical conclusions—specifically almost always some sort of top-down population control with anti-poor, racist, or genocidal undertones. Sometimes overtones. Compare freely the English Poor Laws as they were curtailed by the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, the British government’s approach to famine in Ireland and India, social Darwinism, eugenics, the Holocaust, India’s forced sterilizations, China’s former one-child policy, and a lot of knee-jerk conservatism today. “iF We hElP ThE PoOr, It oNlY EnCoUrAgEs tHeM To hAvE MoRe cHiLdReN AnD ThErEbY ExAcErBaTe pOvErTy!” You may recognize echoes of this oversimplification from some recent indie sci-fi.

Though this gives me the opportunity to link to the Half-Earth Project. Hat tip mashable.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t make mention of the number of times Malthus has been been debunked. Scientific American did it. Forbes did it. These guys did it. Lots of people have done it. In short, we are not herds of helpless animals subject to brutal laws of nature. We think. We can invent industries and institutions and technologies that help us reduce waste, feed more, and more fairly distribute resources. We can raise people out of poverty with democracy, access to birth control, education, supply-chain citizenship, the empowerment of women, and even increasing vegetarian choices in diet. Had Malthus been able to predict Norman Borlaug and The Green Revolution, he would have quietly tossed his manuscript into the fire.

Anyway, the reason I bring all this up is because Soylent Green seems to be conceived as a Malthusian Crisis writ large. Given its timing I wouldn’t be surprised if writer Stanley R Greenberg had read himself some Paul Ehrlich, felt a panicked inspiration, and then grabbed his typewriter. The movie cites other factors, like climate change, that lead to its crisis; and illustrates contributing factors, like inequality, that exacerbate it. But with the titular green being food and the set decoration being mostly sweating extras lying about, the movie is a neon sign built to point at questions of feeding an overpopulated planet.

Which takes us back to that label outside the viewing room.

We’re all beneficiaries of that costume and set design. /s

One of the Malthusian levers to address the problem is systemically reducing the population. Speedy, public suicide services would be one of the tools by which a society could do that. And though this society does not go as far as Children of Men did (which placed ads for the suicide kits called Quietus throughout British cityscapes), characters in Soylent Green do speak about the “death benefit” several times in the movie. This points to survivors getting some payout when citizens suicide. Want to kill yourself? The government will pay your loved ones!

So though it might be seen as a poor, crass choice to refer to loved ones who are witnessing a suicide as “beneficiaries,” this framing within the diegesis helps encourage the act, by subtly implying though its choice of language that the loved ones are not there to witness an act of selfish escape as much as an act of kindness, both for their loved ones and the world.

Even the font of this wall sign—which looks like the least sci-fi typeface of all time: Clarendon—does not speak of sci-fi-ness, but of friendliness, early advertising, and 19th century broadsides. It nefariously adds a veneer of friendliness to what amounts to a murderous propaganda.

Naming is a narrative design choice, and the right name can do a lot of worldbuilding in a very small space, even if it’s misguided and driven by the popular panic of its times.

Report Card: Logan’s Run


For our purposes, Dome City is a service. Provided by the city’s ancestors to provide a “good life” for their cloned descendants in a sustainable way, i.e., a way that does not risk the problems of overpopulation. The “good life” in this case is a particular hedonistic vision full of fashion, time at the spa, and easy casual sex.

There’s an ethical, philosophical, and anthropological question on whether this is the “right” sort of life one would want to structure a service around. I suspect it’s a good conversation that will last at least a few beers. Fascinating as that question may be, looking into the interaction design requires us to accept those as a given and see how well the touchpoints help these personas address their goal in this framework.

Sci: F (0 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

The Fade Out drug is the only, only interface that’s perfectly believable. And while I can make up some reasons the Clean Up Rig is cool, that’s clearly what I’m bringing to it, and the rest of the bunch, to an interface, has massive problems with fundamental believability and usability. Seriously, the movie is a study in bad design.

Fi: A (4 of 4)

How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

Here the interfaces are fine. The Lifeclock tells us of their forced life limit. The Circuit tells us of the easy sex. Fade Out tells of easy inebriation. New You of easy physical changes.

The interfaces help tell the story of this bizarre dystopia, help paint the “vast, silly spectacle” that Roger Ebert criticized when he write his original review in 1976.

Other interfaces help move the plot along in effective, if sometimes ham-handed ways, like the SandPhone and Aesculator Mark III. So even when they’re background tech, they help. Full marks.

Interfaces: D (1 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

Sure, if you ignore all the usability problems and handwaving the movie does, the characters are getting what they want on a surface level. But ultimately, the service design of Dome City fails for every reason it could fail.

  • The system was poorly implemented.
  • Its touchpoints are unusable.
  • Its touchpoints don’t let its users achieve the system goals.

But the main reason it fails is that it fails to take into account some fundamental aspects of human nature, such as

  • Biophilia
  • The (entirely questionable) tendency towards punctuated serial monogamy in pair bonds
  • A desire for self-determination
  • Basic self-preservation.

If you don’t understand the goals of your users, you really have no hope of designing for them. And if you’re designing an entire, all-consuming world for those same users, misjudging the human universals puts your entire project—and their world—at risk.

Final Grade C- (5 of 12), MATINEE

Related lessons from the book

  • The Übercomputer’s all caps and fixed-width evoke “that look” of early computer interfaces (page 33), as does its OCR sans-serif typeface (page 37) and blue color (page 42).
  • The SandPhone would have been much more useful as Augmented Reality (chapter 8, page 157)
  • The Aesculaptor could use a complete revamp from the Medical Chapter (chapter 9, page 258), most notably using waveforms (page 263) and making it feel humane (page 281).
  • The Evidence Tray reminds us of multifactor authentication (page 118).
  • Of course The Circuit appears in the Sex chapter (chapter 13, page 293) and as my redesign showed, needed to modernize its matchmaking (page 295) use more subtle cues (page 301). Certainly Jessica-5 could have used a safeword (page 303).

New lessons

  • The Lifeclock reminds us to keep meaningful colors distinguishable.
  • The Circuit shows why a serial presentation democritizes options.
  • The Circuit also shows us that matchmaking must account for compatability, availability, and interest.
  • The Aesculaptor tells why a system should never fail into a worse state.
  • Carrousel implies that we don’t hide the worst of a system, but instead cover it in a dazzle pattern.
  • The improvements I suggested for the SandPhone imply that solving problems higher up the goal chain are much harder but more disruptive.
  • The Evidence Tray gives us the opposite of the “small interfaces” lesson (page 296), too large an interface can overpromise for small interactions.

I grew up in Texas, and had the chance to visit the Fort Worth Water Gardens and Market Center where some of the scenes were shot. So I have a weirdly personal connection to this movie. Despite that, on review, the interfaces just suck, bless their little interactive hearts. Use them as fodder for apologetics and perhaps as a cautionary tale, but little, little else.