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Make It So

interaction design lessons from science fiction

Make It So

Frequently Asked Questions

These common questions and their short answers are taken from Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel's book Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Ficton. You can find longer answers to each in your copy of the book, either printed or digital version.

The topic of this book is a fun idea, but how is science fiction relevant to design?

Design and science fiction do much the same thing. Sci-fi uses characters in stories to describe a possible future. Similarly, the design process uses personas in scenarios to describe a possible interface. They're both fiction. Interfaces only become fact when a product ships. The main differences between the two come from the fact that design mainly proposes what it thinks is best, and sci-fi is mostly meant to entertain. But because sci-fi can envision technology farther out, largely freed from real-world constraints, design can look to it for inspiration and ideas about what can be done today.

See Chapters 1 and 14.

Do you distinguish between science fiction and sci-fi?

In a 1997 article, Harlan Ellison claimed the term "science fiction" for the genre of story that is concerned with science and "eternal questions," with an implied focus on literature. We wanted to look at interfaces, and this led us quite often into that other category of story that he characterized as a "debasement" and "a simplistic, pulp-fiction view of the world" called "sci-fi." We don't entirely agree with his characterization, and it's true that we didn't look at literature for this project, so we don't make the same distinction. We just use sci-fi as an abbreviation for science fiction to save space. Hopefully Mr. Ellison won't be too mad.

Where is [insert an example from sci-fi here]?

To misquote Douglas Adams: Sci-fi is big. Really big. We couldn't get to everything, and we didn't have the room to include everything we got to. Fortunately, many sci-fi examples build on very similar ideas. Sometimes we passed over one example in favor of another that might be more well known or, alternatively, we included an unsung one that deserved some credit. Most of what we've reviewed is sci-fi from the United States, but we've also ventured into sci-fi from other countries. Even given what we've managed to achieve, we've barely scratched the surface. You can find additional material on our website: www.scifiinterfaces.com.

Why didn't you talk about [insert interaction design principle here]?

The lessons are derived from sci-fi, not the other way around. If no example in the survey pointed us toward, say, Fitts's Law, then it doesn't appear, and some principles didn't make the final cut due to space constraints. Another style of investigation would have been to write a textbook on interaction or interface design using only examples from sci-fi, which would be interesting, but isn't this project.

Wouldn't this have worked better as a movie or an ebook that can play video clips?

Because our lessons and commentary involve moments from movies and television, it's a little problematic to publish them in a medium that doesn't allow us to show these interfaces in action. But because our focus was on studying interfaces and deriving lessons, we've started with media that would work best for later reference: traditional book, ebook, and website. If you're eager to see some of these interfaces in action, certainly check out the original movies or TV shows, or come to one of the workshops and lectures we give on the subject, where we share relevant clips. And be assured that we're exploring alternative media for these lessons and ideas next.

These interfaces weren't designed to be studied or for users in the real world. Aren't you being a little unfair?

Indeed, we are using real-world criteria for interfaces that aren't in the real world—the vast majority of which aren't meant to be. But as fans and designers, we can't help but bring a critical eye to bear on the sci-fi we watch, and with most of the world becoming more technologically savvy as time goes on, audiences will become so, too. But it's the "outsider" nature of these interfaces that make them fascinating to study, as their creators produce both blunders and inspired visions.

What was the most interesting thing you discovered when writing the book?

We were surprised at how productive it was to investigate the "bad" interfaces. The "good" interfaces often serve as reminders of principles with which we are already familiar. Sometimes they are inspiring. But the "bad" interfaces, because they still worked at a narrative level, revealed the most surprising insights through the process of "apology," discussed in Chapter 1.

What was left on the editing room floor?

One of our early ideas for the book was to include interviews with sci-fi makers and science practitioners. The interviews didn't make it into the final iteration of the book, but these people gave their time and shared much with us, and we'd like to acknowledge them individually with special thanks: Douglas Caldwell, Mark Coleran, Mike Fink, Neil Huxley, Dean Kamen, Joe Kosmo, David Lewindowsky, Jerry Miller, Michael Ryman, Rpin Suwannath, and Lee Weinstein.

Additionally, we had early draft chapters on sci-fi doors, chemical interfaces, weapons, and spacesuits/spaceships. Early reviews of the sheer size of the book forced us to make some hard choices. Perhaps in some future work we will be able to develop this content further, but for now it will have to wait.

Why didn't you mention [insert title] more?

Several movies and TV shows are incredibly seminal and culturally influential. Star Trek, Minority Report, and 2001: A Space Odyssey are three we can name off of the top of our heads. But we didn't want to lean too much on a small set of movies and shows. Rather, we wanted to use these examples for their most salient aspects, then branch out into other examples from the survey when the topic warranted.

What about other speculative technology found in video games, futuristic commercials, or industry films?

The hard-core genre nerds know that conversations about defining science fiction often lead to conversations about speculative fiction instead, which is a much broader topic of interest to us, but isn't the focus of this project. Anyone interested in these related media should read Chapter 14.

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