Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction [Book Review]

  January 21, 2014

On the starship Enterprise, when Captain Jean-Luc Picard directs his crew to "make it so," something needs to happen. Now. And when we interact with a piece of software, we have the same expectation. No matter how good the program is, if the interface makes it unusable, it's not good for much.

Where do we find the most interesting interfaces? In science fiction, of course. So Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel pulled the two together in Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction, a look at interface design in SF films and television.

These guys are fans, but they're also designers, so that look is loving, but critical where it needs to be. And, as befits a volume about design, the book itself is a quality product: nice glossy paper, solid binding, and it feels substantial in the hand. It's impressive in these days of softcovers that are all too often sloppily produced.

The contents are equally impressive. In part one, each chapter draws from several productions to discuss one facet of design: mechanical controls, visual interfaces, volumetric projections, gesture, sonic interfaces, and more. Part two looks at the interfaces involved with human activities, from medicine to sex.

The topic may sound unexciting at first, but it's anything but. Dozens of photos illustrate each concept, and can lead to entertaining guessing games and aha moments. I'd forgotten the hologram – er – volumetric projection (there is a difference, and the authors explain what it is) – in Forbidden Planet, though the famous Princess Leia plea to Obi Wan via R2D2 in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is instantly recognizable.

Movie buffs will love this book, even if they don't design user interfaces. There's all sorts of movie history and trivia along with the thoughtful examination of the interfaces. Did you know that the reason Star Trek went from the mechanical control panel with its switches and dials to a touch system was not for functionality? It wasn't even to make it look more futuristic. The hardware interface was just too expensive for the set design budget.

It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. That financial constraint opened up a wealth of opportunity to the design team, and led to the iconic interface that has appeared in three Star Trek TV series and four movies. Shedroff and Noessel walk us through the UI's evolution, showing how it gave each generation its own look while maintaining the overall feel we know as Star Trek.

But the authors don't stop with visual interfaces. We get audio (aka "sonic interfaces"), gesture, augmented reality, and even brain interfaces, with examples taken from productions including The Day the Earth Stood Still, Blade Runner, The Matrix, Demolition Man, and (of course) Minority Report.

Sprinkled through the text are sections labeled "Lesson" and "Opportunity." Lessons range from the blazingly obvious: "Red Means Danger" (i.e. don't mess with ingrained conventions) to "People Need People" (no, not Streisand – think of Star Trek Voyager's Doctor) to, I kid you not, "Use Paralinguistic Sounds Expressively to Trigger Anthropomorphism" (would R2D2 be as appealing without its sound effects?).

Opportunities include "Make Music in the Interface," which discusses music as an indicator of system status. Think Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

The book happily meanders from film to film, TV show to TV show. We wander through the holodeck, check out the good and bad in medical interfaces, and take a peek at The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (don't forget your towel). We learn about challenges in communications, and how various productions addressed them, such as Star Trek (communicators and comm badges for ubiquitous connectivity), The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (Babel fish for instant translation), and Metropolis (a wall-sized contraption with ticker-tape machine, handset, screen, and switches). We learn the pros and cons of various weapons-system interfaces, from Aliens and Independence Day to Iron Man's suit, and see the issues involved with an augmented reality interface (it's only accurate from one point of view).

Every page of Make It So presents something new, in a way that's both informative and entertaining. It's captivating, it's a great education in interface design, and one reading is not enough.

It's impossible to fit everything into a mere 322 pages of copy, so the authors also provide a companion website with additional material. If there's a film you'd like added, or questions you have for the authors, you can find them there. And if you're still uncertain about the book, check out the free sample chapter.


Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction, by Nathan Shedroff and Christopher Noessel. Rosenfeld Media, 2012. $39.00 (includes hard copy and digital editions), $22.00 (digital edition only). ISBN: 1-933820-98-5.

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