Interaction Design for Monsters

Whew. That was close. As every year, there’s a risk that we’ll be overrun with with zombies, werewolves, vampires, sasquatch(es), and mummies before the veil that separates the world seals tight for another year. But a quick tally around the Cooper offices shows that here, at least, we all made it. Hope all our readers are yet un-undead as well. While we’re taking this breather, we’re called to reflect a bit on this year’s interaction design for monsters.

Monsters are extreme personas

One of the power of personas is that they encourage designers to be more extrospective, to stop designing for themselves. Monsters as personas push this to an extreme. It’s rare that you’ll ever be designing technology for humans who can’t perceive anything, can’t speak any modern language, live nearly eternally, shape shift, etc. But each of these outrageous constraints challenges designers to create a design that could accommodate it, and often ends up driving what’s new or special about the design.

But then again…

Some of the constraints of the monsters are human constraints writ large (or writ strangely).

  • Juan wasn’t a useful person in and of himself, but his users exercised flash mob requirements of real-time activation and coordination. Are there flash mob lessons to learn?
  • Emily was fighting a zombie infection, but real-world humans are fighting infections all the time. Is there something we can use for medical interfaces?
  • Metanipsah has no modern language and a mechanical mental model, but most of us have mobile wayfinding needs at one time or another.
  • The Vampire Capitalists behind Genotone took the long view, reminding us of burgeoning post-growth business models.

So maybe they’re great personas after all, guiding us to great design because they’re extreme, just like the canonical OXO Good Grips story, where designing for people with arthritis led the design teams to create products with universal appeal.

But while the design ideas we came to were innovative in how they dealt with extremes, the larger issue was one we wondered about last year while creating the personas, but didn’t have to face as thoroughly until this year.

Ethical issues

Is it wrong to design products and services that help users achieve genuinely destructive goals? As designers, we use personas to help us stay focused on user goals throughout the design process. 99% of the time, that’s the right thing to do. What about those times when a persona’s goals are unethical?

Monstrous personas, benign goals

Romulus, our sasquatch, wasn’t evil. He’s just misunderstood, lonely, and doesn’t know his own strength. By focusing on this goal with the Mate-Night Club and helping him—despite his constraints—we lead him away from violence and abduction.

Juan, as far as we can tell, isn’t evil either. The joke here with JuanSpotters was exploiting him as a tourist attraction, which of course we wouldn’t do for real people.

Turn the tables

Jim and Patrick with Genotone framed their awesome speculative design for vampires as an exposé. It’s a narrative trick, of course, since they had to do the design before they exposed it, but it still cleverly handles the ethical problem of presenting wicked design.

Design the benign part

The text for Metanipsah’s Vengeance Buddy dismisses the issue of his violent agenda jokingly, recasting the archaeologists as guilty and deserving of their fate. (This is useful only for the humor, and not as actual ethical model.) But then the design focuses not on helping him with his violence, but helping him with the nonviolent aspects of his goals: location and wayfinding.

WereSafe indulged Alexi’s need for secrecy (a gray area), and gave him mechanisms to contain his werewolf self (clearly for the better). But then I hinted at a vague corporate evil underneath it all (admitting shades of Wolfram and Hart here). Is it fair for designers to just do the benign parts right and ignore or flag the potential systemic issues?

Address the larger goal

Emily doesn’t really want to deliberately put anyone at risk when she wants to pass as uninfected. She just doesn’t want to be ousted from her support network while she’s still alive and has some hope. When Golden and Andreas gave her iZombie?, which provided a reasonable measurement for the state of her condition, it gave her a way to show them that she’s not a threat (for now), rendering her self-protective goal obsolete. It keeps her within a support network while using tools to keep both Emily and her nearby humans aware. Can interaction designers always rely on this? Is there always an altruistic goal that can be uncovered?

We don’t have answers to all these questions, they’re tricky, to be sure, but fortunately rare. And in this case, even fictional. But this fun exercise had us talking about it.

See You Next Year

So that’s another Halloween done. I’m personally excited about expanding on particular scenarios of use in 2013 that include some smoke-and-mirror demos. Maybe we can make tech-focused horror movies to illustrate them. Got a favorite example you’d like to see as a short film? Let us know in the comments.

Hopefully you and yours had a safe and happy holiday, and we’ll see more Halloween interaction design in 2013!

Chris Noessel

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