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Harry Potter’s Guide to the Sorcery of Software

It’s 2003: I’m in elementary school, tearing through the newest Harry Potter (Order of the Phoenix). I find out the hilarious Weasley twins are dropping their formal education to let their talent for humor thrive with a magical joke shop of their own.

Fast forward to 2010. I’m watching The Social Network, a movie based on the true story of Mark Zuckerberg, computer wizard, leaving Harvard early to start a website of his own. This story sounds…familiar. And when I start thinking about it, I begin to find connections between Harry Potter and modern computer technology all over the place.

The moving pictures are just GIFs.

Talking diaries with attitude – sounds like Siri.

And today, the interface of tablet-based computing, with its intuitive touch controls, gives me the power to scroll, flip, and tap my way through most of my daily tasks. With my iPhone in hand, even compared to a couple of years ago, the power I have at the tip of my fingers is practically magical. It’s like Rowling had a crystal ball (or a prototype fortune telling app).

Rowling’s profound clairvoyance comes as a surprise to me because I remember technology being an afterthought in Harry Potter. Harry observes Dudley playing computer games at the beginning of a few of the books, but he pays little attention to them. Understandable; I don’t think I’d be playing much PS4 if my schoolteacher taught me how to a teapot into a turtle.

When I think about it more carefully, technology and magic as opposites is a red herring. Harry Potter is magical because it is inventive, different from anything I’ve ever known, heard of, or seen before. And the reverse holds true; my muggle world, running on electricity, is just as magical to Mr. Weasley as his world, running on magic, is to me. Harry Potter’s conception about how the world works are therefore just as relevant to our society as they are to the series’ self-contained world.

One of the most important lessons Rowling teaches us about magic is that the greatness of the spell being cast doesn’t count nearly as much as the wizard (or witch!) casting it. Fred and George Weasley aren’t heads of their class–they barely manage passing grades while they attend–but they innovate on basic spells to create magical gags the rest of the world had never thought to try. Their joke shop and later business endeavors take off because the Weasley twins understand that humor is its own form of magic–one that you cannot learn in a Hogwarts textbook.

The real magic source of magic, whether it is the magic of wand-waving or of technology, is the human element. The smartest wizards, Hermione and Dumbledore, both respect and admire Harry because he is empathetic, loving and brave–qualities absent from incantations or formulas. Yet these traits of character are what distinguish Harry as a truly great wizard.

The same holds true for us muggles. Designing the most powerful hardware or efficient software is secondary to designing the best user experience. Apple’s products have gained popularity because they complement the way their user thinks. Customers favored Apple’s intuitive touch-based technology, synergistic cloud data storage and visually appealing design in lieu of technology that may have been faster, more customizable, or less expensive because Apple’s user experience resonated. Whether you’re a wizard or a media designer, your creativity, inventiveness, and empathy are far more important than your wand or your software.

Creating a user experience–focusing development on the person rather than the machine–is the lesson I take away from Harry Potter as a media designer. Whether magic, electricity, or some other force dictates the flow of social life, it is people and the positive relationships they’re capable of fostering that make a society great to live in. Harry Potter is a wonderful case for humanism and for the role of artistic expression & thinking in order to keep its spirit present in a technology-driven world.

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