Science fiction is often labeled “the genre of ideas,” and that description really does sum up what great science fiction is all about. Writing science fiction is about asking the big What if…? questions that bring into focus the day-to-day realities of our own world by exploring the new or different realities of worlds we can create. Ultimately, science fiction is about allegory.
Yet whenever I hear science fiction and UX being spoken about in the same breath, all too often it’s because someone is trying to find a way to speculate on how some new technology can be shoehorned into people’s lives. Usually it will be something based on one of the “hard” sciences—such as physics, chemistry, or biology—out of which some fabulous new widget can be manufactured with the end result foisted on an unsuspecting public in the form of a new phone/tablet/PC interface that they didn’t know they needed until the marketing told them they did. I know what the problem is: the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Watching the beautifully crafted interactive 3D interfaces in Minority Report (2002) or more recently Prometheus (2012), gets everyone excited about using computers again and pretty soon life is imitating art as we desperately search for the next new thing.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love a gadget as much as the next guy, but I am increasingly frustrated at the narrow confines within which we apply our UX skills—even thinner glass, ever more pixels, yet more gestures—just so we can buy and stream even more music in a slightly cooler way than the guy in the next cubicle. But the really frustrating thing for me is that science fiction is not now, nor has it ever been, about technology. Science fiction is about people.
Through science fiction we can examine big social and societal issues and ask difficult and searching questions about subjects that concern all of us, and we can do it without pointing directly at any individual or group, any particular religion or country, or any specific corporation or government. Science fiction allows us to shine a spotlight on something, bring it to the attention of the world and say, “Look at this! Look what is happening! Look what they’ve done!” This is especially true if that something is out of our control or not easily changed. It’s small wonder that communist Eastern Europe produced so many fine science fiction writers over the years; if you cannot easily point at an injustice or an inequality and say, “This is wrong,” than you can at least write about something very similar in order to get people to start talking about it.
Consider the current zeitgeist. What is it that keeps people up at night? What events or changes are we all truly concerned about? Global warming? Environmental damage? The threat of terrorism? The poverty gap? Genetically modified crops?
More than any other genre, science fiction deals directly with change. It’s easy to point to technological change such as those in medicine or biosciences, robotics or nanotechnology, and say, “That’s science fiction.” But there are other changes that are just as important that science fiction brings to our attention. Societal changes in our laws and freedoms, cultural changes in language and its use in communication, political changes in government and economics. No other genre will pay as much attention to these changes—and the consequence of these changes—as does science fiction.
Science fiction flips us out of our own cozy existence and mundane concerns and forces us to think about our society in a different way. Whether the foundation of the message is built upon time travel, pandemic disease, parallel worlds, or a galaxy far, far away, it shows us that the usual way of doing things might not be the only way they could be done, that there may, in fact, be a better way. But, and it’s a very important but, science fiction rarely gives us the answers or preaches any kind of solution; it just gets the conversation started. Solutions are up to all of us—and the UX community in particular—to work out.
In the end it comes down to this: if you’re interested in the nature of humanity and its relationship to the world around it, you need to pay attention to science fiction. But the really important work over the next few years won’t be in the hard sciences, it’ll be in the soft sciences—political science, theology, psychology, sociology—and how we change the UX of Us.
So what do I mean by the UX of Us? Well, put simply, it’s the experience of our day-to-day lives in the areas that touch all of us—healthcare, government, education, access to services, the law. The user experience of the big things is what needs to improve.
Think about the last time you went to vote. For most people it’s a long-winded, time consuming, and ultimately quite annoying experience—regardless of the country or system of government—and an overhaul of the user experience could make it less disruptive to individuals and businesses and improve voter turnout. Education too needs a serious UX overhaul. It’s well documented that a one-size-fits-all education no longer works, so identifying ways to tailor a curriculum to the individual and use teachers to monitor, mentor, and coach as necessary could be a better user experience, especially when the costs of getting it wrong can be huge, both financially and personally. The same tailored approach could also make huge differences in long-term healthcare, especially for the disabled, or those with mental health issues, where off-the-shelf diagnosis and treatment may not be the best approach and/or the care doesn’t take into account the personal wishes of the patient or families involved.
So where does science fiction fit into all of this?
Well, science fiction has always made social change, particularly rapid social change, its reason to exist. The first half of the 20th century saw a wave of popular enthusiasm for science and technology, and science fiction rode the crest of that wave, always looking to the future and providing readers with a way to understand and process the rapid change that every invention—from the car to the television set—brought about. This continued into the immediate post-war period, but the second half of the 20th century saw a marked change to this populist remit. Space rockets, computers, and nuclear power brought speculation about the problems of unchecked technological progress, and this darker tone continued following the fuel crisis and beyond. It took a few years before the resurgence of space opera and the growth of the Internet saw positive science fiction stories surface once again. Nevertheless, modern science fiction is still tempered with plenty of warnings about the hubris of unchecked advance, and in particular, the huge disparities we face between the technological haves and have-nots.
So how do I use science fiction in UX?
One of the best things about science fiction is building a world for your characters to live in. All that great stuff buzzing around in your head can be given life on the page with the only restriction being your imagination. You have all the power and no one can stop you! But as Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, aka Spiderman, “with great power comes great responsibility.” You can write whatever you want, but just like effective UX, effective world-building requires the right level of detail to make it work visually, and well-thought out, well-connected elements to make sense.
Arguably the two most important world-building elements in any science fiction setting are time and space, but not in the way you’re probably thinking. When I say time I don’t mean the year in which your story is set, I mean the social/cultural stage that your world is at. By extension, when I say space, I mean the kind of space that your characters inhabit. Let me show you what I mean:
First Stage World
- Likely to be a wilderness of some kind with lots of space
- Inhabited by few people, probably with very few tools and very little technology
- Groups remain distant from each other, rarely interact, and are distrustful
- Dwellings are small, often portable, and lack tools and/or technology to build big
Second Stage World
- More people, settled into small towns or villages
- People know each other and have a sense of community and contribute
- Dwellings are permanent and of more substantial construction
- People grow crops and raise farm animals; trade often includes bartering
- Community arts and entertainment begin to feature
Third Stage World
- The growth of towns into cities
- New technology is everywhere and usage grows quickly
- This brings new commercial enterprises and new ways to trade further afield
- We now also have the concept of leisure time and luxury goods
- The cost of living increases and more government means more taxes
- New prosperity spawns higher levels of crime
Fourth Stage World
- The city totally surrounds us; little open space can be seen
- People live in cramped spaces for which they pay too much
- There is little sense of community; people are distrustful of their neighbors
- Leisure time is rarely taken because of the need to earn money
- Advanced technology is everywhere but not everyone has access to it
- Unemployment, poverty, and crime are rife
- Taxes are high, government services are poor and inefficient
Fifth Stage World
- The environment has been destroyed; all natural resources gone
- Air and water are polluted beyond the point of recovery
- Food is scarce, disease is rife
- The gulf between “haves” and “have-nots” is the difference between life and death
The relationship that your characters have to the place they live and the tools and technology that surround them is critical to building your world, but there is one important piece of the puzzle still missing, and this is where it gets critical for UX: your story will rarely, if ever, sit squarely in one world stage or another. More likely it will take place at some point in between two of the stages, and a good part of it will deal with the effects that going through this giant social and cultural change has on the characters and on their place in this new world stage, as well as the effects on the society at large.
When you’re writing your story, the first thing to do is figure out what world stage you’re in, or which world stages you’re in between; then you can construct a story that features a main character going from one stage to the other. World building and scene setting work particularly well for emerging markets, but thinking twenty, thirty, or forty years out is hard, so to ensure that our thinking is conveyed with clarity and precision we need to tell stories. For example:
Issay’s back aches as he hefts the last bag of peanuts onto the wagon. He opens the small can of water he carries with him and drinks, then passes it to his sons before checking the wagon is hitched properly for the journey home, to turn and sort.
“Did you download the market?” he asks his eldest, Abassi, as their bullock pulls them along the dilapidated road.
Abassi snorts, “Of course.”
“What’s the latest price then?”
Abassi squints and shields the screen of the mobile phone “With luck, we may get just over five hundred dollars,” he replies. “But cotton is still doing much better, the same weight would be almost nine hundred.”
Issay sighs, rainfall has been bad again but his family has farmed peanuts on this land for years and it’s all he knows. “I don’t want to sell,” he tells Abassi. “Besides, I know nothing about growing cotton.”
“They will train you,” says Abassi “And you don’t sell, you just agree to be part of their production. I can show you it all when we get home.”
Issay looks sideways at the phone. “On that?” he says.
“Yes, on this this.” replies Abassi.
“Dalila will want it back,” says Issay. “She’ll be wanting to call Elimu.”
“But she will need it to be charged,” grins Abassi, “And I can show you while we charge it for her.”
“Okay, okay,” says Issay, “I’ll look, but I promise nothing.”
The thin leather between foot and floor meant Hasan’s feet ached as he waited in line at the polling station. He was thirsty but he couldn’t move, he would lose his place. Soldiers patrolled everywhere, watching the crowd, fingers on triggers, and he remembered his time in this building as a schoolboy before he went to work with his father. A buzz of anticipation rippled through the crowd but despite the apparent good humor a national holiday brings, elections made everyone nervous. Razor wire and reinforced concrete do a better job of keeping voters trapped than keeping suicide bombers out, thought Hassan, and talk of bombs going off elsewhere in Baghdad were already trickling through.
His ancient mobile phone vibrated in his pocket, his father calling he knew, wondering where Hassan had got to and how long he was going to be, but he daren’t take it out now; people suddenly playing with mobile phones at the polling station were likely to be treated extremely badly, and now that he was of age Hassan was determined to vote. His father could wait, he thought, there is always work to be done, that won’t change.
Now that the scene is set we can start to take apart the story to figure out the user needs. In the first vignette we get a feel for the social changes that are happening. We can also see how current technology integrates into daily life. There is also some hint at the social and community structure of where they live and how pervasive the technology actually is.
In the second vignette we are given a hard look at the social changes that are taking place, but also the real and present danger that this social change is bringing about. We gain some knowledge of current technology, but we also see that the uses associated with this technology can be vastly different to anything most of us will ever conceive.
To take this forward we need to focus on the user needs and use our skills and experience as UX designers to analyze social issues; stop thinking about building websites and mobile apps and start thinking about building services, services that are inclusive and understand not the context of the channel or delivery device, but the context of the user and the world around them.
As UX designers we may be in a unique position to bring new technology to the world and help people to make sense of it, but technology itself will not make us better people. The Internet and mobile phones are not saviors of the universe, they are just tools we can use to make life easier or quicker. We also need to be good systems and process designers. UX design might never be able effect the outcome of a political process, but it can effect and change the process itself—and that’s an issue of real importance in a lot of places.
Finally, if it’s true that the only limits to what we can achieve are what we can conceive, then we have to start thinking long and hard about what it is that we actually want to achieve.