Remember when Severus Snape strolls down the classroom aisle while closing the shutters with an elegant flick of his wand for each window? Or when Dumbledore turns off all the lights in the Great Hall with a calm, controlled spell? These once-mystical wishes are now possible with products like the Kymera Wand, one of the many magic-inspired products talked about at this year’s Interaction 16 conference.
The Intersection of Technology and Fantasy
Held in Helsinki, Interaction 16 focused on the ways in which design interacts with technology, and there was a recurring theme I discovered: drawing inspiration from fantasy to design connected devices that give people the illusion of control and empower them.
Take The Dorothy Project, for example. A Bluetooth chip that lives in the users’ shoes which can map to different actions on their phones. Much like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, users can click their feet three times to give themselves a fake phone call or call an Uber. And no, they don’t have to be wearing sparkly red heels when they do this.
With both the wand and the Bluetooth chip, design dictates not just what the experience should be and how it should work, but what it makes the user feel like. The Kymera wand, for instance, converts the mundane task of pressing buttons on a remote control into powerful gestural movements, which in turn makes the user feel like a real wizard.
Then there's Wayfindr, an app for the blind that acts like an inner voice in the user’s head, guiding them to their destination. The user feels like a superhero, as Wayfindr enhances their hearing senses to make up for their impaired vision (think Daredevil). Creating this feeling is important because when the world responds to our will, we're able to feel powerful and in control of the situation.
Mirror, Mirror: Using Fantasy to Design a Smarter Reflection
This practice is interesting because, aside from just adding delight to the experience, it forces designers to approach problem-solving differently. To provide an example, say I’m coming up with use cases for a potential “smart mirror.” My old intuition tells me to display useful and contextual information to the user, such as the weather and the news. Now, to evoke feelings of power and control in the user, I would look to draw inspiration from magic in order to try and stay true to the reflective properties of a mirror.
Mirrors show up often in fantasy tropes, like the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter reflecting the inner desire of human beings to fulfill their wishes, or the Mirror of Galadriel in Lord of the Rings offering glimpses of the future. I might draw inspiration from these examples to brainstorm ideas on how to let the user preview different hairstyles or look at themselves in different contexts that they normally would not be able to, such as new environments or historical settings. This gives the user the impression that they have control over their appearance and makes them feel like they have the power to look at alternate versions of themselves — a common theme seen in mythological fiction.
The Magical Design of Interaction 16
The conference highlighted several fantasy-inspired apps. The designers of Tokyo Shimbun — an app that converts the phone into a magic lens to reveal fun animated sprites on a newspaper — looked to the similar functionality of The Amber Spyglass, a telescope that allows the user to see invisible particles. Blippar, an augmented reality app that identifies everything it sees, is intricately linked to the truth-telling nature of The Golden Compass. The popular traffic app Waze can also trace its core concept back to The Marauder’s Map from Harry Potter, pinpointing the location of essential friends and foes on the visible map.
Limitations of the Wish-Granting Genie Approach
This isn’t, however, something that can be sprinkled into every product for the sake of making it delightful. Products like Magic — an app that essentially acts as a wish-granting genie — are great for making one-step purchasing decisions, but it comes with the cost of lost transparency. Eliminating the process of creating a hotel booking or skipping the steps involved in purchasing a motorcycle can entirely change the experience of buying the product and in turn, devalue the sense of ownership.
It could fare better by giving users more visibility and control over the process. When the user makes a wish, it could be more transparent by offering choices and allowing users to pick and choose from a variety of options. This is a case where the magical aspect needs to be diluted down to ensure a better user experience. Truly replicating a wish-granting genie without a proper understanding of user requests could end in a problematic “Careful what you wish for” dilemma. Designers need to be cautious about the extent to which things should feel magical and should incorporate it with subtlety and restraint.
Using Magic to Challenge Design Thinking
Crafting a magic-inspired experience encourages designers to challenge their imaginations and add an element of delightful mystery into the product. It forces them to draw inspiration from fantasy tropes to look for what’s now achievable with technology. Using the veil of magic, designers can empower users by reducing the friction of interacting with products, thus fulfilling our deeply human aspiration to live in a simpler, more controllable world.