Illustration by Lidia Lukianova.

You’ve probably seen it a dozen times: Tom Cruise waves his hands in front of a blank, glassy screen, and it whirs to life with glowing data and graphics. This vision, from the 2001 Steven Speilberg movie Minority Report, is classic UX bait. In the late 1990s, when Speilberg and his team convened for an “ideas summit” to brainstorm the film’s trademark gestural interaction, ambient gesture control and multi-touch screens were still nascent technologies. Touchscreens had been around for years in some form, but they lacked the streamlined tactile control that Cruise showed off in the film. Gesture control existed in laboratories, but it would still be years before either became commonplace in consumer devices like the iPhone and Microsoft Kinect.

Most of us recognize the future long before it actually arrives thanks to movies, books, and TV shows that provide a glimpse of what technology might someday be like. Science fiction’s glossy visions of the future have paved the way for revolutionary technologies like self-driving cars and voice interaction. But it’s also the seed for the “it just works” attitude Silicon Valley aspires to with the technology it creates.

Today, we expect our interactions with technology to feel easy, seamless, and inspiring, if not downright magical. And that’s a problem, says Dan Hon, a technology consultant and former editorial director of Code for America. In a recent talk at this year’s IxDA conference, Hon argued that designers should proceed with caution when using science fiction as a guiding metaphor for the interfaces they create. “It’s  far too easy to take inspiration from science fiction without critically examining it,” he says.

Imagination as a resource

Companies have long seen value in mining the prescient thinking of science fiction. A small cottage industry of fictional world building has sprung up around helping corporations like Nike and Ford (who are willing to spend big money) envision the future of their products and industries. Outside of the corporate realm, plenty of consumer technologies—from electric cars to voice assistants—were predated by the imagination of a science fiction writer.

The idea for the Amazon Kindle, for example, was ripped from the pages of The Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson. In his book, The One Device, author Brian Merchant recounts how Apple designer Bas Ording took direct inspiration from Minority Report when designing the iPhone’s UI: “You know that Exposé feature?” Ording recalls, “I was staring at my screen with a whole pile of windows, and I’m like, ‘I wish I could somehow, just like they do in the movie, go through in between those windows and somehow get through all your stuff.’ That became the Exposé thing, but it was inspired by Minority Report.”

Borrowing from science fiction is to be expected—and should even be encouraged—says Chris Noessel, a Tk at IBM whose book, Make It So, explores science fiction’s impact on the design world. Designers are influenced by culture, and they often look to the world around them for cues on how to solve problems. It’s no surprise then that the interfaces we end up with are at least loosely modeled after the fictitious technologies they see on screen. “There’s probably a giant subconscious effect that science fiction has on us. Whether we want to or not, these exposures are going to lead to some influence on what we think is cool or desirable, and it’s foolish to ignore that,” he says. “Because even if designers weren’t in the audience thinking ‘wow that’s cool and desirable,’ our users are in the audience thinking ‘wow that’s cool and desirable.’ You either have to design to that or against that. But you can’t ignore the presence of science fiction as an expectation that’s been set for the market.”

Managing expectations

Those expectations are where Hon takes issue. When technology companies mimic science fiction, they risk setting their users up for failure. “We run the risk of losing trust and over-promising to our uses,” Hon says. He cites Star Trek’s Replicator as a popular example. In the series, Captain Piccard commands the Replicator to make him an “Tea. Earl Gray. Hot.” Moments later, a steaming cup of tea materializes. Baked into Piccard’s seamless experience, are layers of real world complications. “If you look at it from a more mundane, realistic point of view, when Piccard barks ‘Tea. Earl Gray. Hot.’ at the computer, it’s more likely that it’s 16 million lines of code that he’s been working on at the Academy for more than 20 years to make sure that he gets exactly the drink that he wants,” Hon says. “We try to imitate and mimic and then implement these technologies, but what we actually are very stilted interfaces with things like the Echo and Alexa where what I would actually have to do is say something like, ‘Alexa, tell my Electrolux skill to start the kettle.’”

Fair enough. But from a usability perspective, science fiction will always be flawed. The genre has never been bound to the same constraints as real world interfaces. It doesn’t need to abide by market forces, usability best practices, or technological limitations. A sci-fi interface is designed primarily for dramatics. It’s a tool to advance a storyline—one that’s often siloed and one-dimensional. “When we look to sci-fi we have to understand that it answers to different rules,” says Noessel. “We shouldn’t expect usability out of it. It’s not a prediction tool, it’s a discussion tool.”

In a perfect world, designers would be able to separate the suspended reality of science fiction from the ideas driving technological innovation, but that’s not how influence and inspiration work. Instead, both Hon and Noessel urge designers to be savvy consumers of science fiction. Hon suggests pausing to think about the ethical implications of the technology on screen. Something like ubiquitous voice computing, while riveting in films like Her, pose serious privacy issues. “What does it mean when technology is recording all the time?” Hon asks. “Do we keep all that data? Is it subpoena-able? What does it collectively mean for society? If we don’t think about those questions, then we end up with things like the Ring security camera.”

Stress tests

Hon cites a 2011 promotional video from Corning Glass that depicts a “world made from glass” where every surface is an interactive touchscreen. A man rises from bed, and his tinted glass shades rise with him automatically. As the man prepares breakfast, his two daughters chat in real time with their grandmother, whose face has been projected, crystal clear and buffer free, onto the countertop. “It’s all about, look at how great technology will be in the future; look at how seamless everything can be,” Hon says. “But what we don’t see, for example, is, what would the horrible PowerPoint look like in this Microsoft concept office?”

Noessel is an advocate for science fiction’s ability to help designers push the boundaries of their thinking, but even he says science fiction is best consumed skeptically—at least when it comes to mining it for inspiration. “You might want the stuff you design to be like the stuff you’ve seen in the movies, when in fact even the cool stuff (maybe especially the cool stuff) would cause disasters in the real world,” he writes on his blog Sci Fi Interfaces. “So studying it critically is important to build up your design immune system, your critical eye, so you are not led astray.”

Pressure testing a sci-fi inspired design against mundane (and extraordinary) circumstances will help designers keep things in perspective.  “In reality, these externalities are what drives good design,” Noessel says. “A good test of any design is to think about, ‘Well ok, how does it work on a day to day basis. How does this work when there’s a pandemic sweeping the globe? It’s our job as designers to make sure things are robust.”