UX Design is Like Writing Science Fiction

In the realm of science fiction writing, authors make their own rules all the time. They may change the known laws of physics and nature with little regard for what is technically possible. They do all this without alienating audiences, with techniques that can also relate to user experience designers.

The key to writing good science fiction is world building. World-building is the process of constructing an imaginary world and is part of the process every author takes when building backstories for their characters. When done well, writers are able to create impossible, yet believable, worlds to captivate their audiences.

Take Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park , for example. In this novel, as well as the movie adaptation, scientists create a theme park full of living dinosaurs. In the real world, recreating dinosaurs is an impossible feat, but in this story this is isn’t an issue. Crichton gives his readers just enough science to make it sound plausible before moving on to the real story. We forget about the limitations of real-life and instead focus on the drama that unfolds.

Like science fiction writers, UX designers can create creative interfaces without adhering to strict real-world constraints. The key to creating a solid user experience is first to define the world that will govern the design, then design the interface that lives in it. As long as designers stick to their own rules, users will be able to follow along.

Consider the popular app, Snapchat. SnapChat eschews conventional UI paradigms. You don’t find clear titles or strong visual hierarchy. No tabs or vertical menus that are commonplace in popular applications. Instead, Snapchat uses gestures to swipe screens around and icons without labels. It seems their designers have disregarded the guidelines which most popular apps follow. Yet at 175 active users, Snapchat is without a doubt successful.

One key component of being successful in either area is knowing your audience. If Microsoft redesigned Microsoft Word using gestures and non-descriptive icons, they would never hear the end of it. In a similar vein, take SciFi Channel’s hard-science fiction series, The Expanse. If their writers threw in time travel and lightsabers, they would lose a lot of their audience expecting a believable world set in the future. Balance is important, and imagination should never eclipse user expectations.

An interface will be most successful when it is both engaging and predictable. Designers can adopt the science-fiction writers’ technique of world-building to create unconventional interfaces. The key is to decide on a set of rules that will guide the design process. By adhering to these rules, designers should be able to explore the limits of their creativity without concern.