Using the Technology of “Rick and Morty” to Understand Good Design
Examining the Plumbus, evaluating the Vat of Acid, and exonerating the Jerry
The Design of Everyday Things (DOET) is concerned with our quotidian interactions with everyday objects. Still, the fact is, it’s far more fun to apply design principles to portal guns and particle disintegrators than to thermostats and bathroom taps.
Through the lens of “Rick and Morty”
Rick and Morty is rife with the wonders and blunders of Rick’s inventions and various advanced alien technologies. It also features Jerry Smith, a man who exemplifies Stephen Hawking’s observation that “Nothing is foolproof to a sufficiently talented fool”. Thus, it also facilitates a discussion of human error. In short, Rick and Morty is ideal for teaching basic design principles in an entertaining way.
Please note that the abominable misuse of reproductive technologies in season 5 is beyond the scope of this article, which was written before its release.
Legal has advised: “On a non-precedential and non-citable basis, Adult Swim will allow you to use one (1) screenshot image from Rick & Morty on a gratis basis solely for use in your article”. Headlining fan art is by Rodrigo Munguía.
Affordances and constraints
The plumbus (pictured below) is an “all-purpose home device” first introduced in its how-it’s-made clip in Interdimensional Cable 2: Tempting Fate. The narrator states, “Everyone knows what it does, so there is no reason to explain it”. Indeed.
In the exceptionally rare case of growing up without a plumbus in the home, you’d have no idea what it’s designed to do. Nevertheless, you’d know exactly how you could interact with a plumbus; what actions are, and are not, possible. This set of possibilities is an object’s affordances, often apparent through nothing more than a cursory visual inspection.
The humble household plumbus affords gripping, squeezing, tickling with, flicking, lifting, and possibly inserting into places. The shaft looks rigid, but it may have some stretch. (And if it’s not stretchy or twistable, that’s a constraint.) Or at least, the plumbus allows for these particular interactions if you’re a human being.
For a species with no prehensile limbs, a telepathic gaseous being named Fart, for instance, the plumbus affords none of these interactions. An affordance is not a static property of an object; instead, it is “a relationship between a physical object and a person” (or any agent).
Morty’s mysterious robot souvenir
Not all objects are designed with easily detectable affordances. Young, innocent Morty has no idea that the “pretty cool” robot he is entreating his grandfather to buy as a memento of their adventures together is a sexbot. No idea, none whatsoever. The robot’s affordances are unclear. As affordances exist even if they’re not visible, labels and instructions are a must. Such signalling components are known as signifiers.
Mapping and conceptual models
The relationship between two elements of a set of things is the mapping, just like in maths. For example, controls can be mapped to the part of a device being controlled through spatial correspondence. This is known as spatial mapping and is not as ideal as having controls directly on the components they operate, but often more feasible.
Using Rick’s space cruiser as an example, it would make little sense if the button on the left prong of the yoke activated the right-side lasergun instead of the left one. Likewise, when Rick turns the yoke to the right, the cruiser will be steered to the right. It’s intuitive, or rather, logical. (Was anyone else bothered when L said helicopters are “intuitive” in Death Note?)
Of course, in a boat, moving the tiller to one side also moves the rudder, altering its course, so the mapping reflects an underlying physical relationship between tiller and rudder. However, mapping doesn’t have to reflect a physical connection, just a functional one. In Rick’s space cruiser, the yoke isn’t actually attached to the thrusters on either side. (What do you mean they’re just trashcans put there for comic effect?)
As long as our conceptual model is useful (“turning the yoke turns the cruiser”), it doesn’t matter if our understanding of the underlying mechanics is superficial, incomplete, or even wholly inaccurate. All that matters is that our conceptual model enables us to use the device correctly to achieve our goal.
The fact that we can use technology without understanding how it works is terrific news. Otherwise, only computer engineers would be able to stream Sci-Fi comedy cartoons. Most of you wouldn’t be able to use something as basic as a straw if understanding physics were a requirement—no, there’s no such thing as a “suckage force”. (Though such a thing would explain a lot of season 5.)
Morty and Summer’s alien spaceship joyride
Conceptual models are inferred from the device itself (its signifiers, affordances, constraints, and mappings), manuals, experiences with similar objects, trial and error, and even information passed down from person to person. (Gems like “Don’t open the microwave until it stops beeping, or you’ll die of radiation poisoning”.) The combined available information about a device is known as the system image.
In the episode Childrick of Mort, Morty and his sister Summer are confident they can pilot an alien vessel due to possessing two distinct conceptual models. Morty believes the ship’s controls are like those in his video games — alas, he can’t read any of the dashboard symbols (signifiers). Summer, meanwhile, discovers several “bongs” filled with what she assumes is the aliens’ collective knowledge, including a pilot’s manual.
Video games and drug paraphernalia appear to be the entirety of the teenagers’ system image, leading to a very ineffective conceptual model. Morty’s button-mashing results in murder and mayhem, while Summer ends up high on exhaust fumes.
The importance of timely feedback
The Mr Meeseeks box has the affordance of a very press-able big blue button. Push it, and out pops your very own nitrate-poisoning victim/Smurf slave to help you open a jar of mayonnaise or self-actualise. Whatever your wish, Mr Meeseeks is happy to lend a hand before vanishing in a poof of highly-relieved non-existence.
But what would be the danger if, after pressing the Mr Meeseeks button, nothing happened for a good long time? According to The Design of Everyday Things (DOET), ideally, we should receive feedback within 0.1 seconds to know that a device has registered our command, even if it cannot execute it immediately.
Good feedback is essential. Without the feedback of colour change, a beep, or even the depression of a button, we may be tempted to press it repeatedly in rapid succession, every “off” press nullifying every “on” press and leading to mounting frustration. Alternatively, pressing the button multiple times might result in the command being registered each time, resulting in multiple Mr Meeseeks — and what a disaster that would be.
Particle Beam Wristwatch
Men typically have only one trouser snake, but here, Rick distinguishes himself yet again. Capitalising on our understanding of cause and effect, our favourite cantankerous mad scientist releases a snake from a hidden trouser holster immediately after using the Particle Beam Wristwatch to disintegrate his enemies.
The release of temporally congruent yet duplicitous, slithery feedback gives the impression that Rick is capable of transmogrification, which is even more impressive than outright annihilation. (Rick does have a crafty way of transforming into a snake, however.)
The Vat of Acid episode: an introduction to human error
Ladies and gentlereaders, I didn’t think I’d ever live — perhaps trapped in a glorious virtual reality — to see an act of revenge pettier than the one in the muffin episode of Invader Zim. Until the Vat of Acid episode came along, that is.
This episode perfectly illustrates all the design concepts we’ve just covered and is probably one of the show's most harrowing examples of human error. And I’m not talking about Jerry confusing the reset device for a TV remote.
Vat of acid
In this episode, Morty’s gone from complaining Rick shoots down his adventure suggestions (mostly revolving around Medieval fantasy hijinks) to sulking because Rick never considers his ideas for inventions. Morty is thus highly disparaging of his grandfather’s escape plan into the newly-minted Vat of Acid™ filled with harmless “Jacuzzi-ed Mountain Dew”. Being criticised pisses Rick off royally, sowing the seeds of Mortys’ (not a typo) destruction.
Morty: Aren't you an inventor?
Rick: Yeah, what part of a fake acid vat with built-in air supply and quick-release bones isn't inventive enough for you, and when did my job become pitching you ideas?
What makes the vat of acid believable is its feedback of de-fleshed bones rising to the surface. Unfortunately, that process has not been automated. Rick and Morty bumble around in the tank, trying to secure themselves and their oxygen tubes before they’re finally able to activate the “quick-release bones”.
The writers hang a lampshade on how long this takes. The alien mobster Rick has just attempted to cheat — in disbelief that someone would subject his own flesh and blood (pun intended) to such an excruciating end — exclaims, “You saw that pause before the bones floated up, that had to be five seconds of unparalleled torture”.
Rick and Morty have no choice but to remain submerged in the “acid” while the space mobsters marinate in their trauma. The next wrench in the works comes as the mobsters contemplate dropping the body of their felled compatriot into the “acid” but wonder if its powers of dissolution have diminished. (I’ve Googled this; I tell you, “writer” is the best alibi for “serial killer” bar none, and you’re better off using a strong base like lye, which is less hazardous to use.)
The gangsters know the vat’s affordances but not its constraints (“What am I, an acidologist?”). They consider tossing a space-rat scurrying past into the vat to test if it’s still potent enough. However, the head honcho decides to chance it, directing his underlinings to dump their colleague’s body. Miscommunication results in the rodent being chucked in the vat anyway, just as Rick’s released more bones in anticipation of a humanoid corpse.
This prompts further lampshade hanging with, “Look at the size of the bones on that rat!” By now thoroughly flummoxed, the mobsters decided that in addition to an “acidologist”, they’d better consult a “bone scientist”. At which point, a fed-up Rick emerges from the tank and shoots them dead. An even more exasperated Morty gives him an earful, accusing Rick of suffering dementia and demanding, “Just admit it was a shitty idea!”
Back at the garage-cum-lab, Morty goads Rick into building the invention of his dreams (despite Rick’s protestations of “I don’t do time travel”): a device that functions as a save-point in video games but for real life.
The reset device reminds Rick and Morty of a similar one on Futurama (and the ensuing disaster). So, to recap, Morty’s system image for the coveted reset device is video games (I’m starting to see a pattern) and a Sci-Fi comedy cartoon (how meta).
Another piece of the puzzle is dangled in front of Morty when Rick asks, “Morty, do you want me to explain, or you wanna go have some fun?” Morty chooses to have fun rather than absorb the available system image. And by fun, I’m referring to a series of heinous acts such as elder abuse, suicide by cop, and limb-by-limb rending by zoo animals before pressing the “reset” button and going back in time, over and over again.
Only, Morty was never going back in time. As Rick told him, he doesn’t mess with time travel. Morty chose to believe Rick invented a device that sends its user back in time for a do-over. In reality, the device sent Morty to one of an infinite number of universes where he happened to indulge in the desired savagery, destroying that dimension’s native Morty in the process.
“That’s right, you little bitch! It’s “The Prestige”! You “Prestige’d” yourself!” gloats a triumphant Rick. Over his grandson’s brokenhearted weeping, he re-iterates Morty’s culpability, “I gave you a choice. You could listen to me explain, in great scientific detail, how it all works… or you could have fun”.
This cautionary cartoon tale illustrates the need for a conceptual model gained through the system image offered to you by its inventor and not merely plucked from pop culture. Quantum splitting and not consequence-free time travel was the correct model. This knowledge would have allowed Morty to decline using the Mortycidal device rather than use it in a way that did not align with his intentions—or morals.
The lesson here is that in life, there are no do-overs. I mean, it’s not like you can escape into a vat of acid and have all your troubles melt away. Oh, wait.
Rick offers to “merge the probable realities so that only one Morty did them all”. At which point, Morty is confronted by a SWAT team, drug dealers, MeToo activists, the AARP, the NAACP, GamerGate, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Morty’s new girlfriend is tragically among the crowd, watching in stunned silence as Morty descends into the vat while Rick bathes in smug satisfaction. (“Say the vat is good. Kiss the vat.”)
Blips, chitz and slips: human error and bad design
According to DOET, a human error is any deviance from “appropriate” or “correct behaviour”. There are two types of human error: slips and mistakes.
Mistakes involve goal setting, planning, and evaluation; conscious deliberation and higher-order cognition. In contrast, a slip refers to performing the wrong action and is merely down to a largely subconscious brain blip. Jerry Smith, Rick’s hopeless son-in-law, is hardly in danger of falling prey to the former.
Morty has returned from a perilous trek, fueled by the consumption of frozen human carcasses, having saved his new girlfriend’s life following their crash landing. Reunited and gathered together in the living room, Jerry is about to switch the TV on before he drops the remote. He picks up the reset device instead, shrugs, and thus erases his son’s first romantic relationship with the press of a button.
Oops. Just a slip. Slips come in two varieties, action-based and memory-lapse. Jerry did not forget to perform an action, so it’s not a memory-lapse slip. Jerry’s unintentional reset was an action-based slip, meaning he performed the correct action on the wrong object.
As the wrong object (the reset device) is similar to the target object (the fumbled TV remote or a universal remote that appeared to be conveniently inside his son’s open backpack), this was a description-similarity slip.
Jerry’s mental representation of a TV remote hasn’t “sufficient discriminating information”. His target was thus ambiguously defined as a hand-sized rectangle with buttons. To be fair, most such objects are remote controls for harmless electronic devices. Generalisation is the act of applying our knowledge to new situations; it’s an ability crucial for survival, though it does have the potential for error.
In contrast, Morty’s use of the reset device was a mistake as he failed to evaluate the results correctly. Morty didn’t check himself, so he wrecked, that is, Prestige’d himself. His was a rule-based mistake, where the correct rule was invoked (“press button to return to save point”), but the outcome was misperceived as aligning with Morty’s goal of consequence-free transgressing. The faulty evaluation was due to Morty’s lack of familiarity with the device. Therefore, this was also a knowledge-based mistake.
You can watch the entire “respawn” sequence here. It’s a) vastly entertaining and b) you’ll be able to note Jerry’s lack of hesitation before pressing the reset button, proving it was a slip rather than a mistake.
Let’s not blame users for the failings of designers. Jerry is as little to blame for wiping out months of his son’s life as for that time he wore an invisibility belt and urinated in an unexpectedly visible way. Yet another tragedy avoidable through good design, reminiscent of the time he disposed of said belt and rendered a garbage truck invisible to its driver—and incoming traffic.
As Don Norman writes with magnanimity in DOET, “invariably people feel guilty [and] blame themselves for ‘stupidity’ or clumsiness”. Poor, hapless Jerry, yet another victim of non-human-centred design.
Moreover, accidents typically do not have a unitary cause. DOET tells us, “for something that happens, there is no single cause; rather, a complex chain of events”. Here it’s helpful to imagine a stack of Swiss cheese slices where all the holes have to line up; a cascade of mishaps unchecked.
Is the reset device labelled? No, it lacks signifiers. Are its reality-warping buttons kept safely under a switch guard? No, and therefore yet another oversight. You know, maybe Morty was right; Rick should work a little harder on his inventions before they result in the slaughter of more Mortys, whether they be decoys or the real McCoy.
The fraught nature of automation
Sure, you can automate simple, dreary tasks such as serving butter, but at what cost? What has thou wrought creating an artificial being with an existential crisis and doubtless Marvin-levels of depression after being consigned to the conveyance of dairy products for all eternity?
Furthermore, “when automation fails, it often does so without warning”. And then who’s going to butter your crumpets? And will you even realise they’re bone-dry before it’s too late and you’re choking down a bite, spluttering and suffocating? Who will save you then? The engineer? The engineer’s children?
Oh, the (lack of) humanity!
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