Report Card: Logan’s Run

LogansRun-Report-Card

For our purposes, Dome City is a service. Provided by the city’s ancestors to provide a “good life” for their cloned descendants in a sustainable way, i.e., a way that does not risk the problems of overpopulation. The “good life” in this case is a particular hedonistic vision full of fashion, time at the spa, and easy casual sex.

There’s an ethical, philosophical, and anthropological question on whether this is the “right” sort of life one would want to structure a service around. I suspect it’s a good conversation that will last at least a few beers. Fascinating as that question may be, looking into the interaction design requires us to accept those as a given and see how well the touchpoints help these personas address their goal in this framework.

Sci: F (0 of 4) How believable are the interfaces?

The Fade Out drug is the only, only interface that’s perfectly believable. And while I can make up some reasons the Clean Up Rig is cool, that’s clearly what I’m bringing to it, and the rest of the bunch, to an interface, has massive problems with fundamental believability and usability. Seriously, the movie is a study in bad design.

Fi: A (4 of 4)
How well do the interfaces inform the narrative of the story?

Here the interfaces are fine. The Lifeclock tells us of their forced life limit. The Circuit tells us of the easy sex. Fade Out tells of easy inebriation. New You of easy physical changes.

The interfaces help tell the story of this bizarre dystopia, help paint the “vast, silly spectacle” that Roger Ebert criticized when he write his original review in 1976.

Other interfaces help move the plot along in effective, if sometimes ham-handed ways, like the SandPhone and Aesculator Mark III. So even when they’re background tech, they help. Full marks.

Interfaces: D (1 of 4)
How well do the interfaces equip the characters to achieve their goals?

Sure, if you ignore all the usability problems and handwaving the movie does, the characters are getting what they want on a surface level. But ultimately, the service design of Dome City fails for every reason it could fail.

  • The system was poorly implemented.
  • Its touchpoints are unusable.
  • Its touchpoints don’t let its users achieve the system goals.

But the main reason it fails is that it fails to take into account some fundamental aspects of human nature, such as

  • Biophilia
  • The (entirely questionable) tendency towards punctuated serial monogamy in pair bonds
  • A desire for self-determination
  • Basic self-preservation.

If you don’t understand the goals of your users, you really have no hope of designing for them. And if you’re designing an entire, all-consuming world for those same users, misjudging the human universals puts your entire project—and their world—at risk.

Final Grade C- (5 of 12), MATINEE

Related lessons from the book

  • The Übercomputer’s all caps and fixed-width evoke “that look” of early computer interfaces (page 33), as does its OCR sans-serif typeface (page 37) and blue color (page 42).
  • The SandPhone would have been much more useful as Augmented Reality (chapter 8, page 157)
  • The Aesculaptor could use a complete revamp from the Medical Chapter (chapter 9, page 258), most notably using waveforms (page 263) and making it feel humane (page 281).
  • The Evidence Tray reminds us of multifactor authentication (page 118).
  • Of course The Circuit appears in the Sex chapter (chapter 13, page 293) and as my redesign showed, needed to modernize its matchmaking (page 295) use more subtle cues (page 301). Certainly Jessica-5 could have used a safeword (page 303).

New lessons

  • The Lifeclock reminds us to keep meaningful colors distinguishable.
  • The Circuit shows why a serial presentation democritizes options.
  • The Circuit also shows us that matchmaking must account for compatability, availability, and interest.
  • The Aesculaptor tells why a system should never fail into a worse state.
  • Carrousel implies that we don’t hide the worst of a system, but instead cover it in a dazzle pattern.
  • The improvements I suggested for the SandPhone imply that solving problems higher up the goal chain are much harder but more disruptive.
  • The Evidence Tray gives us the opposite of the “small interfaces” lesson (page 296), too large an interface can overpromise for small interactions.

I grew up in Texas, and had the chance to visit the Fort Worth Water Gardens and Market Center where some of the scenes were shot. So I have a weirdly personal connection to this movie. Despite that, on review, the interfaces just suck, bless their little interactive hearts. Use them as fodder for apologetics and perhaps as a cautionary tale, but little, little else.

A disaster-avoidance service

The key system in The Cabin in the Woods is a public service, and all technological components can be understood as part of this service. It is, of course, not a typical consumer service for several reasons. Like the CIA, FBI, and CDC, the people who most benefit from this service—humanity at large—are aware of it barely, if at all. These protective services only work by forestalling a negative event like a terrorist action or plague. Unlike these real-world threats, if Control fails in their duties, there is no crisis management as a next step. There’s only the world ending. Additionally, it is not typical in that it is an ancient service that has built itself up over ages around a mystical core.

So who are the users of the service? The victims are not. They are intentionally kept in the dark, and it is seen as a crisis when Marty learns the truth.

Given that interaction design requires awareness of the service in question, as well as inputs and outputs to steer variables towards a goal, it stands that the organization in the complex are the primary users. Even more particularly it is Sitterson and Hadley, the two “stage managers” in charge of the control room for the event, who are the real users. Understanding their goals we can begin an analysis. Fittingly, it’s complex:

  • Forestall the end of the world…
  • by causing the (non-Virgin) victims to suffer and die before Dana (who represents the Virgin archetype)…
  • at the hand of a Horrible Monster selected by the victims themselves…
  • marking each successful sacrifice with a blood ritual…
  • while keeping the victims unaware of the behind-the-scenes truth.

Sitterson and Hadley dance in the control room.

Part of a larger network with similar goals

This operation is not the only one operating at the same time. There are at least six other operations, working with their particular archetypes and rituals around the world: Berlin, Kyoto, Rangoon, Stockholm, Buenos Aires, and Madrid.

To monitor these other scenarios, there are two banks of CRT monitors high up on the back wall, each monitor dedicated to a different scenario. Notably, these are out of the stage manager’s line of attention when their focus is on their own.

The CRT monitors display other scenarios around the world.

The digital screens on the main console are much more malleable, however, and can be switched to display any of the analog video feeds if any special attention needs to be paid to it.

The amount of information that the stage managers need about any particular scenario is simple: What’s the current state of an ongoing scenario, and whether it has succeeded or failed for a concluded one. We don’t see any scenario succeed in this movie, so we can’t evaluate that output signal. Instead, they all fail. When they fail, a final image is displayed on the CRT with a blinking red legend “FAIL” superimposed across it, so it’s clear when you look at the screen (and catch it in the “on” part of the blink) what it’s status is.

Sitterson watches the Kyoto scenario fail.

Hadley sees that other scenarios have all failed.

One critique of this simple pass-fail signal is that it is an important signal that might be entirely missed, if the stage managers’ attentions were riveted forward, to problems in their own scenario. Another design option would be to alert Sitterson and Hadley to the moment of change with a signal in their peripheral attention, like a flash or a brief buzz. But signaling a change of state might not be enough. The new state, i.e. 4 of 7 failed, ought to be persistent in their field of vision as they continue their work, if the signal is considered an important motivator.

The design of alternate, persistent signals depend on rules we do not have access to. Are more successful scenarios somehow better? Or is it a simple OR-chain, with just one success meaning success overall? Presuming it’s the latter, strips of lighting around the big screens could become increasingly bright red, for instance, or a seven-sided figure mounted around the control room could have wedges turn red when those scenarios failed. Such environmental signals would allow the information to be glanceable, and remind the stage managers of the increasing importance of their own scenario. These signals could turn green at the first success as well, letting them know that the pressure is off and that what remains of their own scenario is to be run as a drill.

There is a Prisoner’s Dilemma argument to be made that stage managers should not have the information about the other scenarios at all, in order to keep each operation running at peak efficiency, but this would not have served the narrative as well.