Writing compelling science fiction is a balancing act. On the one hand, you have the demands of the genre: future technologies and the situations they create. On the other, you have all the demands of any story: plot, setting, and above all, characterization. Lean too far in one direction, and you have a so-called “widget factory,” a boring walk through an interesting world. Lean too far in the other direction, and you may end up writing a story with a compelling plot, but one that’s a bit thin in the science column.
So what’s an author to do?
If you’re an author trained in user experience and design, the answer is to use what you know. The intersection of technology and people is the purview of UX.
But what can writers learn from the world of user experience? The list is nearly endless.
Personas and Use Cases
Let’s start with personas. In UX we create personas to understand our user’s goals and actions, to flesh out their motivations for interacting with our software, and to help communicate their needs to the development team. In fiction the analogue might be character studies or sketches—a brief scene to explore a character’s personality. Roger Zelazny, author of works like The Amber Chronicles and Lord of Light, wrote such sketches for each of his characters simply to get to know them better. These sketches rarely make it into the finished story—they’re simply an exercise to firm up questions in the writer’s mind. It’s homework of a sort—with some of the same effects as writing personas. By performing these exercises, we solidify the person in our mind and can better design for them or write about them.
Use cases help us explore how a piece of software will integrate into the user’s activities. In UX, we build our solutions to use cases that we gather or create based on who we think our users are or will be. In a science fiction story where technology plays a key role, it can be helpful to work backward: use the desired technology to inform character development. When creating a character, sometimes a personality springs full-formed into the author’s head. But sometimes it is better to work from a technological inspiration: who would a user of this technology be? What effect would it have on their lives and how will they make use of it? Answering these questions can help you shape a character that will let you tell the story you want.
Developing a Story from Constraints
In the world of design we work within the given constraints of the available technologies. Over the last few years, web development has undergone a dramatic transformation: interaction, animation, and pixel-level control that were once unthinkable are now commonplace. And so we adjust our designs to match the new constraints.
But when writing speculative or fantastic, plot and character are paramount and instead you are free to change the constraints of technology! This lets you create a world constrained in the right way to produce the story that you want to tell.
Another usability technique that can be repurposed when writing science fiction is deriving requirements from situation. Once again, this technique is applied in reverse. In the real world, we carefully observe our users to understand what they do and how they do it and then we derive the underlying requirements. From this we can propose solutions, constrained by available time, money, technology, and so forth.
In fiction, we can propose any solution we want. Say the world of your story includes a teleport booth—a disruptive technology, to be sure. How would it be used? Since that depends on how it works, the question really becomes: as an author, how do you want it to be used? Should it be so cheap and easy that people use it to get to work every morning and forget the outdoors ever existed? Or is your teleporter a fantastically complex alien monument that can move people and ships across the reaches of space? Such a technology would likely be jealously guarded by government organizations—allowing the writers of Stargate to explore plot lines based around intrigue, politics, and the threat of alien invasion.
Authors can explore these ramifications by returning to tasks, use cases, and pain points. For example, say we are struck by the pain of daily shaving and want to include it in our story. We posit a nanite gel that a person can wipe on the area to remain clean-shaven. (A nanite is a cell-sized robotic device that, in this case, is small enough to hide in the follicles and cut hairs as they grow.) This is science fiction as wish-fulfillment, but more importantly as requirements analysis: “How can we make shaving easier?” leads to electric razors, but “How can we be smooth-skinned with minimal effort?” leads to a solution that eliminates shaving entirely.
From requirements we can move to tasks and pain points. If it’s a minor piece of the story, the author can leave it at that. But if they want to add depth and the appearance of truth, they might explore further. Say the nanites are keyed to the DNA of the user to avoid the accidental removal of other people’s hair by wiping the gel on them, or invent a second gel that reprograms the nanites should one want to resume beard growth, and so forth. In other words, create a list of pain points and invented solutions based on the context of use.
Developing Use Cases to Avoid Story Problems
Introducing disruptive technology can be a risky business—especially in science fiction where a group of intelligent, insightful fans is just waiting to find logical inconsistencies in your work. Once a technology is out there, alive in the story, it’s hard to rescind or restrict. It’s worth the up-front time investment and the necessary discipline to carefully explore the implications of a technology when including it in a story.
An anecdote I’ve heard says the teleport booths on Star Trek (the original series) were a plot contrivance, added to avoid endless scenes in shuttlecraft. The transporters served this purpose admirably, but once loose in the fictional world, writers found more and more ways to include this technology: transporting refugees, boarding parties, and even explosives.
With each new use came more complexity. New constraints had to be developed. To avoid turning ship-to-ship combat into a race to see who could teleport more explosives to the other ship’s core, writers decided that ship shields would interfere with transporters. This constraint, created for the convenience of the plot, fundamentally affected how the technology could be used, and therefore, how it affected the lives of the characters. If they so chose, the writers could then have circled around to personas to once again explore the technology further. Are there weapons designers trying to invent new and better transporter technology that can bypass shields? What is their story? How do they fit into this ongoing universe?
Another technology that had to change as a series continued was the humble lightsaber. In Star Wars: A New Hope (1977), we are told that a lightsaber can cut through anything it touches (perhaps just a simplification on Obi-Wan’s part; the man was known to stretch a truth or two). Since that absolute statement made for poor sword battles it was quickly established that one lightsaber could block another. As time went on, writers invented more things that resist lightsabers, lest our heroes become unstoppable killing machines. (Well, more so than the unstoppability of heroic Jedi anyway.)
Writers can avoid this sort of gadget creep by thinking through the implications of the technology—perhaps writing brief use cases about how the technology might be used. Along the way, a writer might find new purposes and uses. For example, in Alan Dean Foster’s non-canonical novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (1978), Luke reduces the strength of his lightsaber to stab through a door and cut its lock. This new use for a slicing weapon seemed sensible enough to Foster, but it took twenty years to see a similar use in the movies: in the opening scenes of The Phantom Menace (1999), Qui-Gon Jinn stabs into a bulkhead door to disable its locking mechanism.
In fiction, world and character construction is not that different from developing personas and use cases in UX. In both, we effectively use technology to address the challenges of daily life. The difference is one of constraint: in UX we work with development teams to find a solution that is both useful and feasible, and then work to make it as usable and delightful as we can.
In fiction we may well want things to be tough, for the sake of narrative—and we can alter the world’s constraints to achieve it. Our ultimate goal is telling an engaging story. By applying UX techniques we can be mindful of internal consistency, believability, and above all, entertainment.