Usability Lessons from 007 and the Big Screen

James Bond knows the importance of usable products in his line work. In fact all of Hollywood seems to be agreeing to what many of us have known for a while, for both the law-abiding civilians and secret agents everywhere: usability is the new functionality.

Where would our favorite secret agent be without well-designed gadgets?

We’ve all been dazzled over the years by the gadgets and tech that show up in espionage, military, or sci-fi films. Even watching Top Gun for the 50th time last night, I was reminded of how complex the design of fighter plane cock-pits or military control stations really are. But whether or not these technologies that appear in movies are realistic, their appearance in pop-culture regularly set (or challenge) the bar of what seems possible. In the heads of the movie-watching masses, even the most far-fetched ideas can have a powerful effect of shaping expectations for the future.

Consider the historically gadget-filled spy-movie genre. In the past these films have been all about predicting future technologies, where as today they serve more as platforms for showcasing and exaggerating current (or not-so-far-off) products – like in the latest Bond film, Quantum of Solace. In it we see Microsoft’s Surface (a concept more vividly explored in Minority Report), and a super spy phone which has similar capabilities to the actual version it’s based on, the Sony Ericsson C902.

Is this trend occurring because film-makers are losing their imagination? No. Is it related to the financial incentives of showing off products that may soon be on the market? Sure, to an extent. But I think there’s something else going on.

These days with the push of a single button on a mobile device our movie heroes are able to snap photos, call headquarters, shoot laser beams, find directions on how to disarm bombs, beam holograms, and get valet service from auto-piloted cars parked on the other side of town.

The suspension of disbelief we evoke as movies watchers is no longer necessarily focused on what these gadgets can do, but how easy they are to use, how smoothly they integrate into daily life, often in the most life-threatening, time-sensitive, and high stress situations. Seeing this dynamic appearing now in films is reinforcing that this is where the consumer demand has been shifting, and this is where the new challenges lie, where the bar is being set. It is no longer good enough to have digital products and services that have a million features; they must be equally as easy to use – just like in the movies.

It’s still natural to get annoyed with the lack of realism in movie technology. But from a design standpoint, why not view each new set of expectations created with each “unrealistic” movie as a challenge rather than an obstacle?  

Usability isn’t replacing functionality, it’s just now valued in the mainstream. These days we’re more keenly aware of what we are capable of achieving in technology. So the burden is no longer solely on the scientists and engineers to do what was never thought possible, but also on the designers and user researchers to come up with better and more efficient designs.

Besides, could even James Bond do half of what he does if his gadgets weren’t designed to be exceptionally user-friendly?  Well, it’s still the movies. So maybe … but it would definitely be a lot messier.

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