Complexity and Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace

In What Movie UIs Say About the Future, Tony Walt reviews a variety of interface types featured in some recent movies. His discussion on Complexity was particularly interesting — especially in the context of the iPad and its move towards simplicity:

I’ve noticed that UIs in feature films are continually getting more elaborate and complex. Meanwhile, though, real-world interfaces are getting more simple and intuitive. It seems an odd contradiction that the futuristic UIs we dream up for movies follow one path, while real world ones are heading down another path.

But the reason for this is simple. Complexity conveys the impression that a system is very robust and advanced, and a character’s mastery of a complex system is more impressive than it would be if the system were simple and intuitive. No matter how complex the system gets, the hero can always operate it expertly, leaving the audience dazzled by the UI and the character’s skill. In the real world, though, users are more often like Mr. Magoo than like Tony Stark or an MI5 agent. So while high-aptitude, heavily trained users might be the fantasy world for UX professionals, it’s not the world we live in. The trend toward complexity in movie UIs doesn’t give us much of a preview of the world to come.

The example he shows is one of the heavily Microsoft Surface inspired interfaces in Quantum of Solace. The UI looks cool and dramatic in the film: lots of dynamics, broad user gestures, and a modern graphic language. And, to Tony’s point, it is definitely complex — totally counter to Surface’s NUI (Natural User Interface) design principles.

Gary Flake’s recent TED demo of Pivot is a real-world parallel. Like the Quantum of Solace UI, Pivot allows the user to move between data sources, and rapidly from high-level to very detailed views. It has a similar one-thing-leads-to-another magic to it. But, watching Gary’s demo, I’m not sure the UI is any less complex.

Does Pivot suffer from having an old-school interface? Do tools like these need clear hints and suggestions for users, so they know which avenues make the most sense to explore? Or are those sorts of smarts an AI fantasy?

Simplified interfaces are definitely an important trend. But not everyone in the world is a Mr. Magoo. There will remain experts who need specialized tools. And it’s not always inappropriate for those tools to be complex. Plus – it’s a lot of fun to see fantasy UIs in film. But it’ll be interesting to see how they evolve in future films, as our expectations for computer interactions move towards simplicity and ubiquity.

Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace

Video of Quantum of Solace UI.

3 thoughts on “Complexity and Quantum of Solace”

  1. awesome post.

    Another point to consider is who the interface is made for. Consumer products focus a lot more on usability and simplicity to create a positive user experience. But I think we have all experienced that a lot of enterprise software, specifically for technical applications or data management, are focused heavily on functionality and budget with little or no time put into interface.

    To that point, perhaps the examples in the movies (which are obviously about impressing the viewer with futuristic CG, not mimicing reality) are not as off-target as we might assume. I can tell you from my brief employment with NASA that their in-house code had no thought or effort at all put into elegant user interfaces.

  2. Faced with hardcore complex interfaces even film “experts” defer to oldstyle behaviors.

    My favorite moment in Avatar was when Giovanni Ribisi’s character (faced with the navigating a complex 3-D mapping interface) turns to a nearby lackey and orders them to navigate for him.

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