Prototypes and the Used Universe

Non-essential details can create depth and help users suspend their disbelief

he first Star Wars movie — now known as EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE — came out in 1977. It was a blockbuster, with crowds lining up for blocks to see it. Part of its success was due to its mythologically sound story. But its aesthetic was also an essential element in its popularity. Two elements in particular stand out: its excellent (for the time) special effects and the richness of its environments. I’m particularly interested in the second of these.

Before A NEW HOPE, most “space” movies looked “new”; their props and ships and clothes all looked clean and “modern.” Think of the most artistically successful pre-Star Wars space movie — 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY — and its antiseptic “NASA” aesthetic. Star Wars didn’t look clean; it looked crufty. Its sets, costumes, and props looked as though they’d been around for a long time. The movie’s creator, George Lucas, described it as a “used universe.”

Take a look at C-3PO, one of the two robots at the center of the movie:


Even though he’s golden and reflective, the filmmakers covered him in dust and oil. The grime suggests there’s depth there. For example, the streaks running down his breast suggest something about how he’s built. They help suspend our disbelief; we no longer think we’re looking at a thin man inside an uncomfortable costume, but a machine that’s leaking oil from its chest. Applying this bit of makeup on the costume was probably cheap — certainly much less expensive than actually building a functioning android.

I love this idea of adding depth to an artifact by touching it up with superficial details. When designing a prototype, you usually want to explore and convey specific ideas. The focus of the prototype should be on those. But paying attention to small details can give it depth, making it easier for users to believe in the world the prototype creates.

For example, the system you’re prototyping may include the concept of user accounts. It’s relatively common functionality; many people will be familiar with how account management features work. You don’t need to build out the parts of the prototype that give users access to those features; the mere presence of a strategically placed menu can suggest that they exist. Another example is notifications, something else that people have experienced in other systems. While notification features may not be the central idea you’re exploring with the prototype, hinting at them can add depth and realism to the prototype.

Creating a “used universe” prototype calls for balance. You don’t want to go overboard with this stuff, lest it distracts users from the main ideas the prototype is exploring. That said, little details can go a long way towards making the prototype more believable — to allow testers to really “get into it” — which is what you want when they’re interacting with it.

Jorge Arango is an information architect and strategic designer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He’s the author of Living in Information: Responsible Design for Digital Places and co-author of Information Architecture: for the Web and Beyond. You can follow him on Twitter or contact him via email.

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