Course Optimal (for IXD)

In the prior post, I spoke about how the COURSE OPTIMAL betrays the writer of Starship Trooper’s mental model of technology as a “stoic guru” and implored writers to shift that model to one of an “active academy.” It’s a good post (if I do say so myself). Check it out if you haven’t yet.

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But this blog is ostensibly for interaction design (also a thinly veiled rèsumè for my wealthtastic and fameulous future career consulting for sci-fi movies). What do the stoic guru and active academy metaphors do for us?

Is it only for strategists?

To change a writer’s metaphor is to encourage them to conceive of technology differently at a strategic level. That is, what strategic role does the technology play in its users’ lives? If you as an interaction designer have the luxury of consulting on projects at a strategic level, then this metaphor is as powerful for you as it is for the writer. Are you writing scenarios where your personas query technology? Or is the technology getting to know its user and then doing work for them? (Don’t worry, there’s plenty for interaction designers to still do.)

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In-house designers—are often inheriting projects where the strategy was done by someone else, a fait accompli. What if you weren’t asked about the strategic implications of the design task at hand (but you’re still thinking of them?) Here I must encourage some upstartness, some whippersnappery piss n’ vinegar. I used to work with a smaller interaction design consultancy in my day job, and even then we never let a design brief get in the way of a great idea. That is, we will solve the problem as the client frames it first, and then deliver a But Wait, There’s More second idea for consideration if not for this project, then for a later project. Even if it can’t be acted on in the moment, it can plant a seed that germinates later.

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So don’t fret if it’s not your job. Make it part of your job to send these ideas up the chain, and more than likely it will eventually become your job. Sure, design the thing, but then design thing you want to design.

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Course optimal, the Stoic Guru, and the Active Academy

After Ibanez explains that the new course she plotted for the Rodger Young (without oversight, explicit approval, or notification to superiors) is “more efficient this way,” Barcalow walks to the navigator’s chair, presses a few buttons, and the computer responds with a blinking-red Big Text Label reading “COURSE OPTIMAL” and a spinning graphic of two intersecting grids.

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Yep, that’s enough for a screed, one addressed first to sci-fi writers.

A plea to sci-fi screenwriters: Change your mental model

Think about this for a minute. In the Starship Troopers universe, Barcalow can press a button to ask the computer to run some function to determine if a course is good (I’ll discuss “good” vs. “optimal” below). But if it could do that, why would it wait for the navigator to ask it after each and every possible course? Computers are built for this kind of repetition. It should not wait to be asked. It should just do it. This interaction raises the difference between two mental models of interacting with a computer: the Stoic Guru and the Active Academy.

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