I am a science fiction fan. At times it can become unhealthy, controlling, and can turn any casual conversation into a one sided, awkward laugh. These awkward social interactions experienced round the world are shouldered by the writers, actors, and creators of these fantastic, creative universes. What’s their secret to making people engorge themselves into these stories, worlds, and the not so average lives of the characters within them? Why do people decide to dedicate their free time, spend their hard earned money, and share their love for all that is science fiction with every sentient being in existence?
Through this series of posts, I will explore the answers to these questions of complete fandom. I am going to share how common patterns in interface design along with a few best practices can cause a product, an idea, or someone to change the way a person lives their life.
You want me to fly what? Fine. Just give me 5.
How often do we find our favorite posse of space-explorers flying an abandoned, highly battle damaged, alien ship the likes of which they have never seen before? Oh, and they need it flying as soon as possible, because the baddies are coming? Someone’s having an off day if the ship’s not running inside of 5 minutes. As an interface designer, I could not be more jealous of the alien races and their job well done. These alien designers have found techniques so effective they translate over species barriers. Not to mention the language, culture, or sensory type barriers, too. Damn, that’s good. Stop taking all the credit, McKay.
A principle being used by these advanced sentient beings is the concept of affordance. This principle takes what you have learned from the world around you, and offers a usable context of it within your design. What do I do with this? It looks like I can push it. How can I make this happen? It looks like I can spin it. Shouldn’t this be over there? It looks like I can slide it. The answers to all of these questions can be acquired through understanding your reactions to the world around you. You as designer can ‘afford’ to design your elements to be more usable by applying these day to day experiences.
Successfully deploying this concept is not the straight-shot it first appears to be. Simply making an element appear as a button to make people press it is not a real solution. Studying the reasons why people know to push that button will help you to more clearly understand why it will make a great answer to your interface design.
Learn through observation
A place I recommend looking to better understand quick, successful answers to design affordances is sitting in your favorite cafe, bar, or restaurant. Observing people in these casual, everyday situations will offer more to your workday than merely a change of setting. For instance, have you ever taken notice of the metal plates placed on doors? Nearly 100% of people opening a door with such an element will do so from this point. When you begin to notice actions and behaviors such as this, your mind should begin to ask all new questions. Do people feel more comfortable pushing the metal? Do the contrast of materials give the user an indication of where they should interact? When you begin to understand the world around you through questions and observations such as these, your execution of the details and user-flow choices will undoubtedly improve by leaps big enough to make the Galactica crew jealous.
A recent trend that showcases this principle is the illusion of depth. Utilizing depth will assist you in guiding your users to the points of interaction placed throughout your interface.
Keep it consistent
Even in the multiverse, writers know one key thing is important to the success of their franchise: consistency. Having characters grow throughout your story is acceptable, and expected. However, your fans are going to notice when you start throwing in anything that’s completely out of character. In fact, any episode or scene in which this occurs will undoubtedly be thought of as that horrible scene where when referenced by your audience. What a turn off that would be.
The same applies to the affordances selected for your interface design. Your light direction, materials, shapes, and feedback must reliably stay consistent throughout your experience. Sometimes it is called for to change from the usual within your design. For example, an error message or a payment confirmation. However, these deviations have the goal of jolting the user into awareness, which is not something you want to constantly do. These deviations from the norm must be calculated precisely, as they can lead to many an array of distractions and confusion to your users if not performed accurately.
Settling into a few rules for your design needs will help keep things moving swiftly. Especially when working across teams of any number, in any spread of locations, the need for guidelines must be insisted upon.
A New Generation
Science fiction writers have long been the inspiration for many devices our scientists and engineers bring into reality. Cell phones, touch-screens, biological scanners, and dynamic buildings all appeared in science fiction before anyone outside of Nikola Tesla could fathom such things. Now more than ever, a new surge of scifi inspired tech is upon us.
2002′s “Minority Report” brought a new concept of interface to the forefront of everyone’s imagination. Why can’t interfaces be as simple as pushing things around as you would in the physical world? Slowly, the days of mimicking motions on screens and devices are leaving us. Instead, we are bringing real behaviors, motions and other physical actions into our digital products. With the addition of motion capture, gyroscopes, and accelerometers, we are giving experience designers a whole new look at the appliance of affordances within their products.
The answers are always right there
As designers of experiences, services, and physical products, the question we are always chasing is “how can I make that better?” Nature has provided us with millions of years worth of research and development that we are now only beginning to tap into. As our technology strives to match the natural world, our design affordances will evolve into some of the most nuanced, and amazing aspects of our interfaces.
What are your thoughts on how to properly apply affordances throughout a design? Discuss your ideas with all of us in the conversation below.