Great TV often has great sets. I could reconstruct the bridge of the Enterprise D from memory. These are spaces that were designed to be an aid to understanding the story. They are spaces we could see ourselves in – spinning the chairs, touching the inexplicable Okudagrams – being present.
Design for the web, or for devices, is a similar conceit. I know where tactical command is on the bridge of the Enterprise because it was designed such that I’d understand – the set was, in a sense, part of the cast. Similarly, I can wing around the iPhone’s mail.app with unholy speed because it’s been built the same way – platform-native components working harmoniously to support a narrative: “I want to check my mail”.
This is why some nascent UI ideas – like Path’s radial menu – make sense. It’s intrinsic to the UI, not just a gimmick bolted on afterwards. Some other interfaces (like every other use of the radial menu thereafter) just don’t work. It’s not because that particular idea doesn’t have the UX chops, but it’s like mounting a set of steer horns over the Enterprise’s viewscreen – it’s incongruous, an afterthought.
The best interfaces are comprehensible spaces, and as users, we understand why they’re made the way they are. The aim shouldn’t be a random accumulation of controls wrapped around a chewy content centre – but a purposeful whole.