Design From the Future! An Interview with the Authors of Make It So.

There’s something magical about the genre of Science Fiction: “science” is rigorous while “fiction” grants creative license. And yet, truth be told, today’s technology feels much the same: the iPad is heralded as magical – revolutionary, even – despite the fact that it’s clearly built with today’s technology. So where does sci-fi end and contemporary interaction design begin? Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel hunt for an answer in their latest book, Make it So.

Suspend your disbelief long enough and Science Fiction becomes indistinguishable from reality: characters employ foreign technology with remarkable ease; alien races converse freely with one another; the story marches on, unhindered by technology and its vices.

…but it can’t be that simple! Those of us who design products for a living raise our eyebrow at such a notion. So Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel, esteemed interaction designers in their own right, did something about it. Over the past six years they scrutinized and cataloged the interfaces found in sci-fi films, movies, and television shows. How they then managed to condense that down to a brief, 300-page book is another kind of magic altogether.

I recently had the opportunity to pose a few questions to the authors on the thinking behind their book: what were the high and low points of the interfaces they surveyed? and how has technology raised the bar for tomorrow’s science fiction authors?

If that isn’t enough to whet your whistle, we’re also giving away 5 copies of their book. Read on for more information on how to enter for a free copy of Make it So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction.

Thanks, guys, for taking the time to chat! Let’s begin at the beginning: there are plenty of things from which artists and designers draw inspiration – Nathan mentioned biomimicry in a previous book – what led you guys to choose Science Fiction, in particular?
Nathan Shedroff Nathan: Pure interest. I had the idea for the project back in 1988 or ‘89, after seeing interfaces in science fiction of the time. Nothing got started on the project, though, until 2006, when Chris jumped in. I guess you could say that we are both personally inspired by science fiction, so it was a natural place to start.
Christopher Noessel Christopher: One of the things we realized while writing the book is that when people talk about future interactions, they’re often talking about science fiction: “It’s like that interface from Minority Report,” for example. Interfaces we see become part of how we think and talk, a lingua franca of the future. But they’re rarely ideal models of design or usability – they’re usually made for narrative purposes – so we should be careful about putting them on a pedestal without a critical examination.

In the book’s introduction you mention that technology and sci-fi influence one another; that current technologies force “sci-fi interface makers to go even further.” What do you mean by even further? What challenge does this pose for contemporary artists/authors?
Nathan ShedroffEverything we see in sci-fi raises our expectations and conditions our understanding of what is desirable, if not possible. At the very least – for a certain class of sci-fi, trying hard to “wow” audiences – the sophistication of their interfaces raises the stakes. it’s like a sci-fi “wow” arms race for those directors, producers, and designers.

Similarly, real world interfaces – especially for mobile apps – have grown significantly sophisticated in the last few years. What we use every day seems pretty advanced and futuristic now, but those, too, contribute to our shared notion of “cutting edge.”

The effect is almost the same: whether an author is writing a sci-fi novel, a producer or designer is prepping a new sci-fi film or show, or a startup is trying to surprise users with a wonderful interface. We’re immersed in all of this media, fluidly. Everyone needs to be aware of the “state of the art” in both worlds, since our users and audiences are.

Christopher Noessel Yep. it’s the business of sci-fi to peer into the future, but it can only see so far. As time and technology march on, sci-fi has a new present to deal with, and consequently a new future to look for. What was once mindblowing may now be mundane, and no longer satisfy gee-whiz feelings about the future, which audiences have grown to love and expect from sci-fi.

You might be interested to hear about one of the patterns we identified while writing the book: for most sci-fi, there are limits to what new technology can be incorporated into the narrative without boring the audience with a training manual for the new world. These constraints make it difficult for sci-fi to connect to a broad audience. We called this pattern “What You Know, Plus One” to illustrate this principle that science fiction can only “afford” to look a little bit ahead. This plays out in many of the interfaces, which are known paradigms plus one new, futuristic aspect.

Surrounded by modern devices, science fiction can occasionally look mundane in retrospect. Were there any interfaces that were “too basic” to include in the book? Any that you had to skip because they were too complex?
Nathan Shedroff Surprisingly, we didn’t find many interfaces too complex to put in the book (though there are, obviously, many that didn’t make it into the book – we probably have enough for at least one sequel, if not a few). This is probably because sci-fi films and television shows must, first and foremost, tell a compelling story. If the interfaces are too complex to understand, it might steer the audience’s attention away from that.

About the only example we could think of where an interface was intentionally too complex was played as a joke – the digital conveyor controls in Galaxy Quest. We’ve found a few interface jokes in this investigation. Perhaps we should compile an interface gag reel with all of them?

Christopher Noessel There is probably a large class of otherwise mundane interfaces that are in the database, but not worth calling out in the limited space we had. (The full database is slowly coming online in blog form at Communication tech comes to mind: once the problem is solved in the real world, it’s not really worth poring over in sci-fi. Matchmaking is another. It appeared a few times in sci-fi before it hit the real world and we realized that it was way more complicated to get right than sci-fi had time for.

But I’ll back up what Nathan said about Galaxy Quest, and comedic sci-fi in general: comedy has license to break all sorts of “rules” in the name of a good joke, so teasing apart what is the joke (for us) and what is supposed to be real (in the fictional world) gets complicated fast and ultimately unproductive, so that might count.

How do you see this book being used? It reads both as a reference and a long-form white paper. By that I mean: I could see used as a sort of “Design patterns” book, but it’s also a very contextual, like summarizing a science experiment.
Nathan ShedroffWe designed the book for a few different purposes. Obviously, there’s a certain amount of enjoyment in just reliving these moments from the perspective of interaction designers and sci-fi fans. However, we think there are useful lessons throughout the book for interface/interaction designers to use to improve their interfaces (the “design patterns” aspect you mention). Along with the 150+ lessons, there are some other things called-out we thought were too important to include even though they aren’t lessons: Opportunities for deeper interface development and new ideas.
Christopher NoesselI was delighted that Bruce Sterling, in the foreword, also said he thought it would be useful for the creators of science fiction. I imagine they’d enjoy the issues around the chapter’s particular topics like how their characters communicate through technology, how they talk to technology, how sci-fi doctors treat their sci-fi patients, etc. And I have had at least three professors tell me so far that they plan to use the book in class, as a fun way to get students sensitized to issues of interaction design.

We’ve also spoken with a lot of people who make sci-fi for a living. They tell us that, given their deadlines, there’s not a lot of time to think as deeply as they’d like and that, often, the needs of the narrative trump issues that designers might deeply care about. Giving them a reference that describes the fundamental issues confronting sci-fi interfaces should be handy. While we didn’t write the book with these users in mind (and I’m interested enough to want to pursue more material in this vein) I can understand how they’d really enjoy it, too.

Finally, I noticed that the science fiction movies from which you drew were mostly American. Was this a conscious choice? Do you feel as though science fiction interfaces/memes are cultural or universal?
Nathan ShedroffPart of this is a result of who we are (Americans) and where we live (in the USA). Chris and I made a point to hit the most influential science fiction first and much of that is from the USA.

Although we certainly have watched sci-fi from other countries, it hasn’t yet yielded a lot of interface lessons except, perhaps, for the French film, Chrysalis, and the Mexican film Sleep Dealer. Sci-fi has been a huge part of the culture of US media – perhaps more than other cultures – which accounts for so many sci-fi films and television coming from the USA.

we’ve watched sci-fi from England, India, France, Germany, and Japan. We have a long way to go, still, however. In particular, we just begun to scratch the surface of properties like Dr. Who, Blake’s 7, and many more. We’ll get there, for sure, but there’s a lot to go through.

As for the memes, if they’re based on core meanings (like community, duty, accomplishment, wonder, etc.), they’re universal. If they’re based on a particular expression of an emotion or a culture, they may not be. The best sci-fi tends to connect at the root of meaning, at least partially, and that’s what makes it timeless. Even some of the oldest films, like 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Day the Earth Stood Still, hold up both narratively and technologically when watched today.

Christopher Noessel Technology is unevenly distributed across the world, and the tech presented in science fiction ranges in plausibility from “coming out next quarter” to “would break the (known) laws of physics.” The “sci” part of sci-fi doesn’t resonate with everyone the same way.

But sci-fi is also self-selecting. Overwhelmingly, the people who might sit down in a cinema or turn on a television are part of the bulk of humanity wrestling with the effects and moral implications of evolving technology in their lives. So certainly the themes can be universal, but it gets complex when you zero in on the tech.

Closing thoughts

That’s all for now! Thanks again to both Nathan and Christopher for taking time out of their post-book-buzz to entertain my questions. If you’ve got questions for either of them, feel free to ask them below – the authors are very likely to be lurking around to see what the community has to say. :)

Want to win a copy?

You can purchase Make it So over at Rosenfeld Media. Be sure to use discount code UXBOOTH for 15% off. If you’d rather win one, though, simply follow @uxbooth on twitter and leave a comment with your twitter handle below, highlighting your favorite interface from sci-fi.

We’ll randomly draw five members within a week of this post, and contact you over Twitter. See you in the comments below!

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