Designing E.T.’s Experience: Interview with UX Week Speaker Doug Vakoch of SETI Institute

Better experiences come about from building empathy for our users, but what happens when that user is an extraterrestrial? At UX Week this September we’ll talk to the person who can answer this question and help us consider how solving this far-out problem can help us design and communicate better with our users here on earth. Dr. Doug Vakoch is the Director of Interstellar Message Composition at the SETI Institute, and he researches ways that different civilizations might create messages that could be transmitted across interstellar space, allowing communication between humans and extraterrestrials even without face-to-face contact. In our conversation, Doug lays out the design principles for communication with E.T., invalidates Hollywood plots, and tells us what he really hopes to communicate to extraterrestrials. — Brandon: Let’s jump right in—if an extraterrestrial civilization contacts us, do we communicate back? Doug: There are a lot of things that happen with the first time we detect a signal that looks like it might be from another civilization. The signals that we look for are very similar to the TV and radio signals that we create here on earth, so there’s a long process that could take weeks, even months, before we’re really sure that this is from another civilization. Then, if we do, it could be very hard to unpack any message that they might send to us. But all the while that we’re trying to figure out what they’re saying and whether this is, in fact, really a signal from ET, I think there will be a cacophony of replies from earth. While it’s debated in the United Nations and...