Inspirational Design: The UX of Hollywood

Jeff LeBlanc


Jeff is Director of User Experience for ICS. He has extensive experience developing custom Qt solutions with a strong focus on applying human factors principles to UX design.

By Jeff LeBlanc | Wednesday, March 6, 2013

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So, read any good books lately?

Seen any good movies recently?

Design any cool interfaces this year?


You may not think about it, but these questions are all related. Like any other industry, UX design has trends. The devices people use every day such as smartphones and tablets for example, set our expectations about how things are “supposed” to work.

If you have a tablet that has a certain level of interaction such as smooth navigation and the ability to launch apps seamlessly and you only paid about $200 for the privilege, how do you feel? Later, you use an embedded device with touchscreen capability, to find it doesn’t do half of what your tablet can do and costs 10 times as much, you get a quick case of cognitive dissonance and you think, “What’s wrong with this thing?”

Sure, the engineer in me understands the challenges of designing and implementing a complex system with hardware and software but let’s face it, the end user doesn’t care. They want it to work the same way that they are used to.

To add to the challenge of expectation, we have those crazy Hollywood producers raising the bar on what’s considered cool every year. If you’re a UX geek like me, then you’ve probably seen the movie Iron Man a bunch of times and worn out the pause button on your remote checking out the details.

Head up display? Check!  Watching a cool display with lots of cool glowing blue stuff and non-rectangular areas is awesome. Beyond the pure eye candy however, we also find a lot of context-sensitive information being seemingly communicated without effort. Voice recognition? Check! And it comes complete with a disturbingly accurate and diverse vocabulary complete with snarky comebacks; Siri, eat your digital heart outGestural Interface? Check! Tony Stark can work through problems by waving his hands through the air with both crude and fine levels of granularity. We won’t even go into the holographic displays that are everywhere in Tony’s workshop, since comparing those to my puny monitor makes me weep.

So, where does this leave us as UX practitioners?

Perhaps a little discouraged, since today’s technology is not yet near the level presented inIron Man. The good news is this movie represents what is possible and hopefully will inspire us. After all, if we weren’t dreamers, we probably wouldn’t be in this field.

The better news is technology will continue to advance as is evident in ubiquitous smartphones of today; they were once the science fiction of yesterday.

So the question becomes, how best can we recapture some of that thrill from the moment we first used an iPhone or similar device? One way is to look at Hollywood and its ability to transform its collective imagination into magic that can capture attention and inspire its audience.

I read an excellent book recently called Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction  (Shedroff and Noessel, 2012), in which the authors describe looking at the speculative fiction of today to drive our designs. If we can apply simple techniques like trimming corners and radiance in an intelligent fashion without sacrificing the important principles of creating usable designs-- then why not?

Alan Cooper, author of The Inmates are Running the Asylum - Why High-Tech Products Drive Us Crazy and How to Restore Sanity, shared an interesting notion.  In the book, Cooper suggests we “pretend its magic,” at least in the early parts of the design process. Sure, at some point we have to understand the limitations of what can actually be implemented, however, as Cooper suggests we should be willing to push that envelope. No matter where you go to find it, whether it’s on the silver screen or in a good book, as dreamers and designers we bring technology to life for the user, so let’s find that inspiration and design for the future. I think our users will enjoy the show and I suspect you will enjoy the process a whole lot more! And now, if anyone needs me, I’ll be watching The Avengersagain with the pause button at the ready.


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