Chat follow-up: Ultimate Weapon Against Evil & Constraints

The live chat of the O’Reilly webinar that Christopher delivered on 18 April 2013 had some great questions, but not all of them made it out of the chat room and onto the air. I’m taking a short break from the release of the sci-fi survey to answer some of those questions.

Q: Dennis Ward asks: There’s a gaff in The Fifth Element scene referenced—Corbin Dallas places one of the stones upsidedown relative to the other three. Is that a constraint issue?


Yes and no.

Yes, if the stones could be placed on their pedestals in the wrong way. You wouldn’t want to design the weapon such that that were possible. As we saw, seconds count, and the stakes are pretty high. (c.f. Ultimate Evil.) Constraints, as Don Norman defined them in The Design of Everyday Things, would be one way to fix that. For example, you could widen one end of the stones so they were too large to fit in the pedestal the wrong way.

But (and here’s the “no”) it turns out that in The Ultimate Weapon Against Evil, the stones work whichever way they’re inserted. Take a look at the scene and though the stones aren’t all oriented the same way, i.e. pattern- or smooth-side up, they all work. (There is a third possibility, that orientation does matter, but they just got lucky in orienting them correctly. The odds of getting this right the first time is just over 6%, so we can discount this.)


This is a superior design solution since it eliminates the need for the user to worry about orientation. Let’s call the pattern Make Orientation a Non-Issue.

But wait, we’re not done. We shouldn’t disregard the fact that you perceived it as a gaff. The design of the object signaled to you that there was an orientation that mattered. So yes, let’s keep the stones the same basic shape such that orientation is a non-issue, but one small improvement would be to have the visual design match the interaction design: The patterns should be symmetrical, perhaps completely covering each long side of the stones. That way, anyone wondering how they fit the pedestals wouldn’t falsely perceive that there is an orientation issue when there really isn’t one.

Thanks for this question, by the way. The Fifth Element is one of the first I reviewed for the Make It So survey since it’s one of my favorite sci-fi movies of all time. It makes me want to post that one next. I’ve got other plans, though, so perhaps after that. 🙂

UPDATE ————————————–

Since writing this post, I’ve done deeper analysis on this topic. See the Pilot episode of Sci Fi University for an even better and more thorough answer to this question.

One thought on “Chat follow-up: Ultimate Weapon Against Evil & Constraints

  1. So here we are seeing the evolution of USB: From previous plugs, some of which could go in the wrong way, to USB 1.0 and 2.0 which only could go in one way, but had no visual clue to which way, to USB Mini which had an obvious visual clue (shape), backwards to USB micro (What were they thinking?), to USB 4.0 which I hear will be fully reversible and let the computer figure out which way the cable is inserted on each device.

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