A Dreamer, A Thinker, A Speculative Philosopher

“He is a dreamer, a thinker, a speculative philosopher or, as his wife would have it, an idiot.” -Douglas Adam, Restaurant at the End of the Universe

Science Fiction is the perfect avenue for new ideas about technology as it is not constrained by reality. It allows readers to be transported into a magical land where anything is possible. This creates the most exciting stories which inadvertently impact and inspire real world possibilities. 

One of the most creative examples of science fiction with limitless possibilities is my favorite book series- Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. The books were written in 1978, yet their ideas resonate in the way we think about and design technology today. 

As a designer I draw a lot of inspiration from science fiction. Here are some examples of technology from the Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy that reflect design, technology and culture:

Marvin: The manically depressed robot

Marvin is a robot who’s depressed and paranoid attitude always unintentionally entertains readers. He is an “electronic sulking machine” programmed to always be sad. 

We don’t expect robots to have emotions at all, but to see this beautifully constructed robot constantly sulking, makes it clear he is thinking and feeling. That is, thinking and feeling sad! Giving a polished, shiny robot so much emotion breaks our understanding of the term “robot”. Almost making him human!

Right now, I am taking a class on conversational design, where we discuss the ideas around making machine interactions more human. Should we be able to talk to Siri like it is our friend? Or is that too jarring and odd?

A conversation between two conversational agents Siri and Eliza:

We have not been able to bridge the gap between human intelligence and intelligent technology, and design is still Marvin like.

Babel Fish: The language translating fish

A babel fish is a small yellow leech-like fish that people around the galaxy put in their ear to understand and translate alien languages.

Although the babel fish removes barriers between different races and cultures, in the books it is the cause of many bloody wars. This shows that it is impossible to predict the  impacts of technology with even the best intentions. 

The fictitious babel fish can be compared to todays translation technology, like Google translate. And we all know we can never truly rely on Google translate for everything. Just see this example below: 

Sometimes good design intentions don’t always lead to the most positive results. Translation apps can give misleading information because they lack context. At least unlike the babel fish, translation apps haven’t started a war yet.

Happy Vertical People Transporter: The elevator that dimly predicts the future

The Happy Vertical People Transporter is an elevator that can dimly look into the immediate future. This means it can predict where it’s riders are going, which ensures riders get to the right floor every-time.

Being intelligent contrasts directly with having to perform the mindless task of going up and down. So the elevator started protesting to participate in the decision making process of where to take riders. However, its demand to participate were not met, so it sulks constantly.

The users need should drive the design, and not the other way around, and that’s why the Happy Vertical People Transporter is always sad.

Nutri-Matic Machine: The drink synthesizer customizes drinks

The Nutri-Matic drink synthesizer is designed to produce drinks that match the taste, metabolism and desires of the person drinking.

The intention of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation (the company that makes the Nutri-Matic Machine) was to make a machine that understands and delivers to the drinker what they desire. However, their complaints department expands across the universe due to their inability to serve everyone.

This draws a huge parallel to technology in the real world. It is impossible to make technology that pleases everybody. Even the biggest companies in the world like Apple, Google, etc. cannot make a product that everyone wants. As designers we need to be mindful that we can’t please every user.

Conclusion

Technology in Science Fiction may not always be completely defined, but in the universe it is set in, it is believable. It acts as a powerful lens to understand technology since it comments on socio-political circumstances and inspires designers course of action.

As a designer I constantly appropriate science fiction to situate my contributions and future possibilities. 

“The Guide is definitive. Reality is frequently inaccurate.” -Douglas Adam, Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

Houston, We love this problem

Orion Mockup- NASA is creating ways to do surgery in space!

Going to the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston for my capstone project with NASA, was one of the coolest experiences of my professional life. We had the opportunity to go inside the International Space Station (ISS) Module, sit in on a flight control training simulation, interview multiple thought leaders at NASA and of course get some matching NASA sweat shirts.

I was really enamored by our host (Donna) who knew the answers to all our questions and arranged for us to meet a lot of influential and intelligent people who work at NASA. With ISS being an international mission, I was pleasantly surprised by how cooperative every country is when working together in space. For example, if a toilet breaks in the NASA module of the ISS, astronauts can just use the one in the Russian Soyuz.

Inside the International Space Station (ISS) Mockup

The ISS was HUGE (200m long)! We were allowed to go inside some of the ISS modules and sit in the pilot seat of the space craft module. Astronauts use 2000+ controls to make the shuttle fly! There was velcro on every surface to make objects stay in place in zero gravity. We also saw some of the latest projects NASA is working on, like Orion’s experiment on doing surgery in space.

Observing and intercepting a flight control training simulation

We spent 6 hours watching a flight control simulation, where trainers sitting in a room controlled what flight controllers sitting in mission control saw, observed and intercepted. It was almost like the trainers had scripted a play- deciding when to simulating breaking a computer, cutting off power supply, etc. and flight controllers in mission control had to figure out how to fix it.

The most interesting thing about the simulation was the way flight controllers communicated. They had headsets with multiple voice loops (sometimes up to 11 voice loops) playing at the same time. To someone completely new to this process this sounded and looked very complex and confusing, but trainers were not even phased when listening to so many loops at once.

Talking to Flight Controllers, Trainers, Flight Ops, CAPCOM and more

Talking to a wide range of people with different roles we learnt a lot about situational awareness- who has the most knowledge in a given situation. For example, on the ISS astronauts have a better understanding of what is going on (since they are seeing problems first hand). However, in other situations access to a lot of fine detailed data might make flight controllers more aware.

This is just one of the of the many insights we had throughout the trip.

We have to thank our clients/ fun uncles Joe and Dave for setting up interviews, taking us around and getting us access to some pretty cool spaces (like the Neutral Buoyancy lab!).

There was so much to absorb and learn with just three days in Houston. In Dave’s words- “That’s like no time in NASA time”, so we have a long way to go.

My team: Katie McTigue, Megan Parisi, JT Aceron, Nathan Barnhart

Designing the future

“First electricity, now telephones. Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an H.G. Wells novel.” – Dowager Duchess (Downton Abbey)

One of my favorite characters in television is the Dowager duchess from Downton Abbey, who will do anything to avoid the future. Her attempts to live in the past are comical, but there is no escaping the future. 

Avoiding the future can have disastrous consequences. That is why as a designer I need to actively design for the future. While designing products I try to have foresight and awareness of the kind of society I am creating.

In my project FoodPop, my team and I preempted the future we would be designing for by world building, and creating a narrative for our autonomous car project.

The Seamless Future: Omniscient Data :  High Infrastructure


In the Seamless Future we are completely connected to the city and the city is connected to us. When we move through the city, transport and pathways are timed for our arrival and optimized for your destination. It’s a future where getting lost is an impossibility.

The Neighborhood: Limited Data :  Low Infrastructure

Autonomous vehicles make longer commutes a time of relaxation rather than frustration. Suburban and community centered lifestyles have become very desirable. Even though many in these pleasant burroughs benefit from technology they value face to face interaction and community. 

By creating tools and experiments designers can actively think about the future.

I try to remember that the future’s temporal context might not be the same as the present. It is impossible to predict the future, but the only thing that is certain is that it will be different from the present.

I also try to account for diversity and expect multiple outcomes when I design. Designing in a closed environment like a lab or classroom is a good starting point, but understanding the greater context and implications of designing in the real world is more important.

As designers thinking about the future and context of design is not only a necessity, but also a responsibility.

“Designers are always designing the future”- Herb Simon

My team: Aaron Sisneros, Rachel Roberts, Isamu Taguchi. Image credit: Aaron Sisneros

Does work rewire your brain?

A last-minute Guerrilla Test taught me a lot about the people I work with on my agile team.

As a designer I wanted to test the memorability of a page I had created for lead generation. I walked around my office to gather quick feedback on my prototype from my colleagues.

Step 1: Each colleague had 5 seconds to look at the prototype before it was taken away.

(Since this is the average time a user spends on a webpage: 5 seconds!)

Step 2: The colleague is given a piece of paper to draw what they remember.

This is what my colleagues could recollect from the prototype:

Colleague from MARKETING: Could only remember the image I used on top of the page. He told me he remembered a scenic image with mountains and a person standing over it.

Colleague from DEVELOPMENT: Only remembered the 3 CTA (Call to action) buttons on the page.

Colleague from QUALITY ASSURANCE: Noticed some misaligned text on the page.

In the limited time to view my prototype my colleagues noticed aspects on the page that directly correlate with their job. Since the marketer is used to working with content she noticed the image. The developer noticed the buttons which potentially needed coding. Quality Assurance spotted a misalignment of content on the page.

Isn’t it remarkable how a person’s perspective is influenced by their job!

This reiterated the importance of knowing your target audience. Before designing a product, you want to spend as much time as possible with your target audience and observe them on their jobs.