UX of Star Wars

Why the UX of Star Wars: A New Hope Tells a Completely Different Story

In Technology News, User Research by Adrian and Emmanuelle0 Comments

When audiences first saw the universe George Lucas built “in a galaxy far, far away,” it was the technology and connection between the humans and that technology that mesmerized. What was so striking was that the futuristic landscape was “lived in”: the spaceships were dank and dirty, the Mos Eisley cantina reminiscent of the dirt and grime of the local dive bar, the control panels a nasty collage of buttons and wires. You could see yourself living there.

In 1977, when the film debuted, the Apple II was just taking shape, along with the rise of personal computing. Lisa and the first commercially available GUI was still two years away, IBM’s floppy disk held a whopping 360 KB, and a Sony television commercial proclaimed “the age of the button is over” with its card-sized electronic calculator. An “insecure little computer on wheels,” as Roger Ebert wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times after the film’s debut, pushed the audience’s boundaries of what could be possible with the new personal technology-driven world. With a few notable exceptions (Silent Running, 1972;  Forbidden Planet, 1965), audiences were used to seeing robots who were downright evil, either impregnating a woman against her will (Demon Seed, 1977); serving as creepy housewives (Stepford Wives, 1975); or freezing animals and human refugees to feed a futuristic society in the 23rd century (Logan’s Run, 1976).

Star Wars IV: A New Hope was more than a space opera. It also spoke to the way that humans could interact and partner with the technology in their lives. What the human characters lacked both as characters and for skills, their robot companions provided. The spaceships were important vehicles for not just moving the characters along, but as crucial points of the story, from the ominous capabilities of the Death Star to the quirky character of the Millenium Falcon. The image of man and robot, traveling across the desert of the Jundland Wastes and working together to save the galaxy— this was revolutionary.

But…we know much more about how humans interact with technology now. Most people augment their work and personal lives with technology, perhaps not with robots, but with voice commands, user interfaces, touch/sensor technology, to name a few. Knowing what we know now about how humans and technology work together, how well would the technology presented in Star Wars really work? If the lessons from human factors, psychology and user experience research we’ve gained over the years were applied to the interactions with technology in Star Wars, would the story change?

These were the questions we grappled with as we sat down to watch the user interfaces in Star Wars IV: A New Hope, compiled by Vimeo user Dino Ignacio earlier this year. One of us, Emmanuelle, is an avid Star Wars fan, while the other, Adrian, has never seen a single Star Wars movie, so we feel confident that we are able to provide both an objective and contextually aware evaluation. We feel compelled to note that this was not a completely leisure exercise. Many of the enterprises and IT departments we deal with are in the same position as George Lucas was: trying to envision a future where technology augments the human experience to make them more efficient or satisfied.  

Analyzing the Droids

R2D2

“What’s this?”— Luke

A file lands in your inbox. The sender is unknown, and the file itself contains no clues as to its origin or purpose. The file itself, while emotionally gripping, provides no clues either, but it may be related to the town recluse and an ancient religion. Would you be compelled to uproot your life to chase the file?

If you’re not a character in a film, chances are the answer is no. You have your own ambitions, a network of people on your own planet– without any indication of its importance, a random video file without time, date, author, title or any other clues would not be enough for you to put yourself at any risk whatsoever, let alone, throw off your weekend plans. Very likely, this file would have not even made it through the “spam” folder in your inbox.

We’re speaking about the hologram of Princess Leia and the lack of metadata associated with it. Now, we aren’t saying that the premise of Luke going to extreme lengths to return R2D2 to Alderaan was completely not realistic (some people are born risk-takers), but we are saying that if you are going to transmit top-secret communications that will essentially ask someone to do that, you should at least provide the metadata and a more informative user experience to convince them.

The user experiences with R2D2 underwent a dramatic shift during A New Hope. At first, Luke and the others could not understand him. As they spent more time with him, they were able to decipher his bleeps and bloops. This is not uncommon. Any parent or pet owner can provide evidence of the same learning process: at first, different cries and whimpers are indistinguishable, but eventually serve as important clues as to the baby’s or pet’s needs. The brain is wired for this; numerous cognitive psychology and neuroscience studies have established that the human brain can detect statistical regularities in patterns and attribute meaning to them.

However, it’s one thing to not be able to immediately communicate with a baby or pet. It’s different if it’s a machine that is built to interact with humans. It should be able to be understood easily and instantaneously by its primary user. R2D2’s critical user experience flaw is that the design of his communication fails his primary user (humans).

C3PO

C3PO, the master communicator, represented a different set of UX issues, specifically when technology doesn’t work with the environment. You build something to serve as the bridge between different worlds, cultures and languages— wouldn’t it make sense that he himself be able to visit those places? The photo below illustrates why this did not happen. The actor in the C3PO suit had to be carried, rather than walk.

C3pO being carried in the desert

So, if C3PO were not able to assist Luke Skywalker in his travels, what happens to our language-deficient hero? He would have had a lot of trouble communicating with other creatures from other galaxies. For example, in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, it was C3PO’s advanced diplomacy and language skills that convinced the Ewoks to join the fight. The photo above clearly shows that the forest terrain of Endor would have provided an insurmountable obstacle for him. Without C3PO on Endor, it would have been very difficult for the Rebels to accomplish their mission of deactivating the shield generator protecting the Death Star.

 

Enterprises go through this all the time by not using contextual inquiries in product development. Contextual inquiries help you decipher the ecosystem of your user, from their needs and wants to the physical space around them. Had the product development undergone this process, C3PO would be able to walk on sand and be able to navigate through all other environments he is commonly exposed to.

Furthermore, if C3PO’s main value is in deciphering foreign languages, why is he designed in such a large form factor? Wouldn’t it make more sense that he would be compact and transportable, like a device you carry in your pocket?

Darth Vader

On the opposite side of the good-evil continuum, we are considering Darth Vader a part-human, part-droid. Not to give anything away if you are one of the very few people in America who has not seen the entire trilogy, but he was a human at one point. The technology that became part of him is what saved his life after injuries sustained in a fiery duel on Mustafar with Obi-Wan Kenobi.

darth vader buttons

Now, to the eternal question: what do the buttons on the front of his body do? Put your hand to your stomach and press, as if you had buttons on your own stomach. Can you tell which button is which? If you consider Dark Lord: the Rise of the Darth Vader canon (which Disney officially does not), then this is his life support system, controlling his breathing, internal organs, and bodily functions. The buttons on the front allow him to manually override the system to exert himself more.

We feel the need to point out here that clearly, the dark side has an issue with crucial system vulnerabilities in terrible places. If you were planning to build a car that had a manual override system, would you put the buttons for operating that system in an inconvenient place for the operator to use that also happens to be the easiest for another driver to reach?  Obi-Wan could have easily taken him out in Episode IV by simply using the force to push the button until Darth Vader’s organs over-exert themselves and shut down.

Even if it is not his life support system, it is still a set of buttons that only an external user could use to operate. This poses its own set of vulnerabilities. Why does this matter? Although these vulnerabilities exist only on one person, it’s important to note that bad user design has far wider reaching effects. Darth Vader is a very talented employee, and clearly someone who has loyal followers within the workforce. If he dies or is seen as not valued enough to have a properly functioning suit, then what does that communicate to the rest of the workforce who are motivated to work there because of him? Furthermore, how would that affect the ability of the empire to communicate stability, much like a corporation tries to with both employees and shareholders?

The point we’re trying to make is that user-centered design principles extend beyond just the design: they show that you care about your employees. It’s morale and financial boosting to not have to burden the human resources department with workman’s compensation claims because of poorly designed safety buttons, reduces the frustration for new employees if software is easy to use, and increases the ability of the sales team to sell the company if they have the confidence that the manpower is stable.

The Death Star Work Environment

Luke Skywalker would have never needed to blow up the Death Star.

What would have killed it long before his fateful mission to the critical vulnerability in its shield is something much more mundane: recruiting costs.

Only certain body types were able to fit in the Storm Trooper uniforms, narrowing the available recruiting pool. If the statistics of the general human population in that galaxy mirrored those of the U.S., only 1 in 3 adults would have been eligible. When you factor in that the work environment requires a certain demeanor to fit in, well, that number goes down by quite a bit.

In addition, the workforce in control rooms needed to be extremely tall to reach the buttons on the ceilings. Unless the population in the star war galaxy were genetically taller than the earth population, which seems to be very unlikely looking at characters such as Princess Leia or Yoda, the Death Star HR teams would have have to recruit unusually tall operators to work in the Death Star control room, presenting a serious obstacle to the recruitment of competent, skilled, and motivated workforce. To make the recruiting tasks even harder, working on the Death Star was also dangerous. Many of the technicians, the low-level operators responsible for maintenance of the machinery and general operations, would have died or been injured in the process.

For instance, the death star’s rooms are separated by doors that have no button and all open in different ways: horizontally, vertically, circularly from center to perimeter. One operator approaching a door would have no control on when or how the door would open and close, thus being exposed to the risk of the door closing on them. Beyond causing physical pain and hindering your ability to work, this would cause embarrassment as well. One of the authors of this blog post still remembers the pain she felt on that embarrassing moment when she got caught in between two doors on the subway system in Paris.

And what happens after you get caught in the door? The doors do not explicitly nor intuitively show an emergency button to deactivate the door in case of an accident. What would happen if Darth Vader’s cape have gotten caught in one of these fast moving doors? Would he have to use the force to get out of it? Would he have to use the force to free anyone that would have been gotten caught in these doors? What time left would he then have to rule the galaxy as father and son?

The set-up of the control room also causes unnecessary physical strain for the operators. Instead of a set of buttons being flat on the wall, it appears that they are set up on a slope. The higher the button, it becomes more and more difficult to reach over the desk to push. An operator would have to lean over a whole set of buttons in order to reach the higher ones, setting up for accidental pushing and operations disruptions.

The auditory system feedback of the control room also poses issues. Whenever implementing external feedback to a user, it should be immediately understood by the user and provoke the correct emotional response. If the user is supposed to calmly make a series of decisions, a high-pitch, alarming sound could cause stress to the user in an already stressful situation. If the alarm is supposed to set off a series of fast, physical tasks, then the extra adrenaline may help. From our viewing, the control room panels  should not provoke a stressful response.  Not only that, but what if other sounds are drowning out the feedback sound, such as the ship going through an asteroid field? Clear and intuitive system feedback prevents users from having the wrong reaction.

Screenshot 2016-04-07 14.29.03

Here we have the all-important central machine. We’re not sure what it does, but it appears to be very important. But not important enough that getting to it easily for maintenance was a priority in its creation and the lives of the workforce to maintain it can be at risk by having to walk along the tiny curb. With these shortcuts, the machine will experience periods of downtime. Then, how important is it really?

We haven’t even considered yet the workers who fall victim to Darth Vader’s force-choking trick. With so many workers dying on the job, the recruiting costs alone would have been tremendous. To compensate, the Death Star would have had to provide extraordinary benefits compared to competitors. Without knowing the norms for employee benefits, it’s hard to benchmark this.

What would have definitely cost money and affected operations is the cost of constantly training new employees. The Sasha Corporation examined 15 different studies on the costs to replace an $8 per hour employee, determining an average cost of $9,444.47 per turnover. Even when the 33 percent of estimates with the highest prices were removed from calculations, replacement costs still came out $5,505.80 per turnover. Another estimate from ERE Media’s Talent and HR blog says that turnover cost changes with the level of the employee: 30 to 50 percent of annual salary for entry-level, 150 percent for mid-level, and close to 400 percent for high-level.

Regardless, putting simple safety protocols in place would have saved the company money, which they could have used to fix their security system or invest in a more equipped shield. Who knows what the Death Star could have done?

Screens

There is a door in your office with a handle on it that you push. The handle indicates that you would pull it, which is not the correct action.

Everyone has one of these doors. You experience the micro-frustration and embarrassment interacting with it. You can never seem to remember because it is contrary to nearly all of the other doors in your life.

This, my friends, is called a “Norman Door,” a term coined by Don Norman to illustrate that the design of everyday objects should help you discover how to interact with them.

These schematic renderings of the Death Star are the Norman Door of screens. star wars screens

There are no units of measurement, no keyboard, no indication/instructions for a touch screen, no indication of voice command response, no notice of language.

Many of the tools developed in the enterprise today are their own “Norman Doors,” even a touch screen. For high-pressure situations, such as when you are to go into the space fight of your life, these “Norman Doors” can multiply the stress the user is already feeling. If someone at the Death Star meeting room table is either left out of this meaning or the meeting has to stop to explain the interaction instructions to a newcomer, this affects the flow and productivity of the meeting. In addition, the combination of a high-stress meeting, plus the shame of having to ask for help, will dramatically affect the work performance.

 

The Rebel Experience

The rebels did not necessarily have a single work environment to evaluate, but we were able to look at the few pieces of technology they did use in A New Hope.

Binoculars

Luke may have most non-user friendly binoculars ever envisioned.

The binoculars are important, yet also one of the most glaring usability issues in the movie. Binoculars cannot let in light, hence the plastic-y suction feeling with today’s binoculars. Luke’s would be completely ineffective; they let in light and fail to conform to the shape of his eye socket and bridge of his nose. What do the symbols mean in the top right? Why is the picture all fuzzy? Why do you need to center binoculars horizontally? How can you tell depth? Surely, a galaxy that requires travel across difficult terrain with dangerous creatures would necessitate some serious binoculars.

In fact, later on in his search for R2D2, he is using the binoculars to spy on the Sand People’s banthas, when a Sand Person jumps up right in front of him to attack. Clearly, not a great tool any field, and yet this is what Luke has. These days, of course, we would use a Find My Droid app and pinpoint him on a map, right?

These lessons are especially important for organizations to keep in mind as they bring augmented and virtual reality into their technology portfolio. You’re designing products for people who will be using them in vastly different environments. In Luke’s case, relying on these endangered his life during his search for R2D2. Are the products you are developing going to pose more of a distraction and risk than a seamless merge with the physical environment?

The Millennium Falcon

Oh, the Millennium Falcon. The icon of the rebels. Its recognizable circle shape graces T-shirts, coffee mugs, a bed, serving platter, chocolate, or hey, even a computer if your heart desires.

We would like to think that the fandom is correlated to the superior user experience elements of the Millennium Falcon. Between the correct mapping of target direction, meaningful iconography, the Millennium Falcon represents a great use of computer aids for reality. The large windows, in contrast with Serenity, Planet Express and Protector to name a few, gives the pilot the highest advantage of the viewing area.

There were, however, some issues that made it only suitable for Han Solo and Chewbacca. If you notice, it appears the most consequential buttons during flight are those in the middle. Han Solo is right-handed and sits to the left of Chewy; Chewy is left-handed and sits to the right. This allows them both easy access to the important buttons. But what if you had two lefties? Clearly, this ship was made for Han and Chewy.

The usability of the Millenium Falcon matters for its perceived value, which Han Solo had to use as a negotiating tactic during his numerous, shall we say, nefarious tactics as a bounty hunter. If a portion of the population (those without the perfect Han/Chewy left/right combo) cannot use your product, this reduces the pool of available buyers and competition for your product.

TIE Fighters and X-Wings

You’re a pilot in a high intensity space flight. What’s your greatest need? Vision. Clear, precise vision to hit your targets and avoid the enemy’s. The rebels did their fleet a disservice by requiring them to pull down and use binoculars to see. Why not invest in advanced optics that provide a zooming feature?

The fleet will already struggle with their guns firing from on top and behind them, which in the event of a quick maneuver, could risk you shooting your own wing. This design also gives the pilot less control because you have to wait for your forward shots to pass by before making changes to your direction.

Would the rebels have lost their space battles? Would the cost of upkeep on the fleet been much higher than it should due to the poor design? Possibly. We can’t decisively say how these usability issues would change the story, because we don’t have a picture of what fleet upkeep looked like.

Look, true creativity is hard and the interfaces of Star Wars A New Hope certainly reflected the excitement around technology at the time, as well as the complexity of design. The point we’re trying to make with this very, very long article is that design does change the story. Would the galaxy have really been saved? We can’t say that for sure, but we can say that we’ve come a very long way in our understanding of how to design meaningful experiences with technology. Download our guide to understand how businesses are doing the same with their enterprise technology.

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