What Sci-Fi has Taught us About Interaction Design
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What Sci-Fi has Taught us About Interaction Design

on / by Tom Goulooze

Interaction design is about solving problems. At its core, it deals with facilitating conversations between two entities that do not understand each other. In its nature IxD will always be imperfect; we overcome barriers with menus, iconography, intuitive design and comprehensive lexicons. So how do you design the interactions for the next generation of devices or the one after that? When do you know what will work and what it means for an interaction to be meaningful?

As an industry, we have traveled from the Apple Two to the iPad Pro, and it couldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for the screens of science fiction solving the problems of our future.

Where No Designer Had Gone Before: Star Trek

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First aired in 1966, Star Trek has had an enormous influence on the way we envision interactions with technology. Be it the original series, next generation or deep space nine, the series has shaped many a screen and is responsible for an icon in communication: the flip-phone.

What Sci-Fi has Taught us About Interaction Design by Usabilla

In the nineties, mobile phones kept shrinking to smaller form factors and Motorola was having difficulty designing the next generation of devices. After numerous failed prototypes they asked the experts at Argonne National Laboratory for advice. The solution was an easy one; consumers already had a clear picture of how a flip-phone should look without knowing its existence. Thirty years of Star Trek trained people to expect a communication device with a clamshell design, it was called ‘The Communicator’ and the Enterprise crew had been using it for ages. In honor of this cultural phenomenon Motorola named the device StarTAC and it is regarded as one of the most successful phones in history.

This shows that when components of science fiction saturate the public imagination, it affects design in a really tangible way. Just look at how the use of touchscreens in Star Trek formed the foundation in much of the early input-based interaction design.

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Kubrick’s Calling: 2001 A Space Odyssey

The best innovations in interaction design don’t necessarily come from big science fiction concepts but are often found in the ingenuity of details. The 1968 classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey had amazing ideas about the future of design and technological innovation, but its most poignant is its smallest: Skype.

The scene where Dr. Floyd talks to his daughter may seem a bit antiquated but it predicted perfectly how we would all connect to distant grandparents 40+ years later.

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Predicting The Present: Minority Report

Although experts are divided on the issue, there is no denying that the representations of UI in the 2002 blockbuster can be directly tied to developments in gesture-based interfaces and the emerging field of virtual reality. Minority report makes navigating menus feel like an intuitive adventure.

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This teaches us that streamlining HCI (human-computer interaction) does not always have to focus on making elements less and less intrusive, when done right there is value and fun in the interaction itself!

Looking Forward, Not Down: Her

So what can the science fiction of today tell us about the interaction design of the future?

The current consensus in the industry is that the average user is exposed to too much screen time. If you were to analyze what tasks we perform on our phones, most of it would consist of checking notifications and filling up leisure time by scrolling through a Facebook feed, last checked 15 minutes prior. It seems absurd that these small actions would require 100% of the user’s attention for the entire time it takes to complete the task, yet it is the reality we live in today.

Luckily, acclaimed director Spike Jonze shows a path to screen relief in his 2013 picture, Her. As Star Trek did before, this movie could play a big role in shaping our interactions in the future.

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Praised by critics for its ideas regarding HCI, the movie presents a possible future where a user interacts with the virtual world via a context-aware conversational interface, otherwise known as AI. The greatest asset of the AI in ‘Her’ is its ability to figure out the needs of the user before the interaction happens. Why go through menus when you can just trust the system to go through the UI pathway for you? It erases the barrier between human and computer interactions mentioned at the start of this article; in doing so it negates menus, iconography, structure cues and feedback-cycles and creates something close to a perfect conversation.

What Sci-Fi has Taught us About Interaction Design by Usabilla

The Takeaway: Always Be Prepared For a Eureka Moment

The interaction between human and personal devices is a complex one, and the last 50 years have seen much experimentation.These innovations make a case for taking the road less traveled and embracing the fact that your next great idea might be one cinema ticket away. Do not be afraid of the weird, the mainstream or the nerdy; inspiration strikes in unexpected places.

For more excellent stories on how science fiction influences interaction design: read this book. Images courtesy of Rosenfeld Media, Microsoft, IMDB and Google.  


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Article by

Tom Goulooze

Tom Goulooze is a Growth Consultant @Usabilla. He loves to talk tech, big ideas and the power of good communication. Please don’t get him started on flag design because he will go on for ages.

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