Computers in the Movies

How many times have you groaned at the ludicrous ways in which computers are portrayed in movies? Jakob Nielsen has had the great idea of doing an analysis of some of the biggest howlers.

Here’s a condensed version…

1. The Hero Can Immediately Use Any UI

Break into a company — possibly in a foreign country or on an alien planet — and step up to the computer. How long does it take you to figure out the UI and use the new applications for the first time? Less than a minute if you’re a movie star.

The fact that all user interfaces are walk-up-and-use is probably the single most unrealistic aspect of how movies depict computers. In reality, we know all too well that even the smartest users have plenty of problems using even the best designs, let alone the degraded usability typically found in in-house MIS systems or industrial control rooms.

2. Time Travelers Can Use Current Designs

An even worse flaw is the assumption that time travelers from the past could use today’s computer systems. In fact, they’d have no conception of any of modern technology’s basic concepts, and so would be dramatically more stumped than the novice users we observe in user testing. Even someone who’s never used Excel at least understands the general idea of computers and screens.
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If you were transported back in time to the Napoleonic wars and made captain of a British frigate, you’d have no clue how to sail the ship: You couldn’t use a sextant and you wouldn’t know the names of the different sails, so you couldn’t order the sailors to rig the masts appropriately. However, even our sailing case would be easier than someone from the year 2207 having to operate a current computer: sailing ships are still around, and you likely know some of the basic concepts from watching pirate movies. In contrast, it’s highly unlikely that anyone from 2207 would have ever seen Windows Vista screens.

3. The 3D UI

In Minority Report, the characters operate a complex information space by gesturing wildly in the space in front of their screens. As Tog found when filming Starfire, it’s very tiring to keep your arms in the air while using a computer. Gestures do have their place, but not as the primary user interface for office systems…

4. Integration is Easy, Data Interoperates

In movieland, users have no trouble connecting different computer systems. Macintosh users live in a world of PCs without ever noticing it (and there were disproportionally more Macs than PCs in films a decade ago, when Apple had the bigger product-placement budget)…

5. Access Denied / Access Granted

Countless scenes involve unauthorized access to some system. Invariably, several passwords are tried, resulting in a giant “Access Denied” dialog box. Finally, a few seconds before disaster strikes, the hero enters the correct password and is greeted by an equally huge “Access Granted” dialog box.

A better user interface would proceed directly to the application’s home screen as soon as the user has correctly logged in. After all, you design for authorized users. There’s no reason to delay them with a special confirmation that yes, they did indeed enter their own passwords correctly…

6. Big Fonts

In addition to the immense font used for “Access Denied” messages, most computer screens in the movies feature big, easily readable text. In real life, users often suffer under tiny text and websites that add insult to injury by not letting users resize the words.

This is just a digest. Worth reading in full.

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