Monday, May 21st, 2007

The Uncanny Valley of User Interface Design

Category: Articles, Editorial

Bill Higgins wrote about design for the web vs. repeating desktop applications on the web in The Uncanny Valley of User Interface Design.

It has stirred up debate on various blogs around the web.

Ever since the beginning there has been talk on using web metaphors on the web, and desktop ones on the desktop. Bill is correct, that as soon as we get richer technology, the temptation is to jump into the “desktop can now be done on the web!” way of thinking.

It isn’t a simple problem though. Even Bill acknowledges at the end that it may make sense for Zimbra to look more like Outlook than Gmail. Where are your users coming from?

That being said, I think that we still have a long way to go on how to make rich applications on the web feel right, and not just be desktop apps that have a browser chrome. What do you think?

We all know what Jakob Nielsen thinks about Web 2.0 design.

Posted by Dion Almaer at 11:12 am

3.6 rating from 33 votes


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As much as I enjoy questioning current ideas and recognizing new memes, this “Uncanny Valley” abuse is got to stop.

It’s a theory proposed for robotics that can be shoehorned into moving CGI for human characters. But that’s it. It doesn’t apply to user interface design unless you’re trying to create a photorealistic desktop.

Really. It’s a nice buzzword, but it’s being dilluted by bad use and it’s becoming impossible to explain to neophytes that find it in these weird contexts. There is no uncanny valley for user interface design because it exists only in an artificial universe, there’s no natural user interface to which an artificial version can be so similar that it creates the valley (unless you’re thinking of a banana peel or a nipple as natural user-interface examples, I’d like a nipple-based user-interface!).

Comment by Eduo — May 21, 2007

i second that nipple-based interface

Comment by Gordon — May 21, 2007

I disagree with Eduo. The application of the “Uncanny Valley” to UI design seems pretty natural to me. The prime example for me is Swing and its native Look-and-Feels (the “artificial”) versus the real native OS L&F (the “natural”). They’ve tried so hard to make these L&Fs behave like the native OS’s, but they don’t quite get there. It’s extremely irritating trying to use a Java desktop app. that does one thing when it looks like a Windows app. that does another. I can sum it up with one control: JFileChooser. Makes me sick. Too bad I love Java.

All UI paradigms are the same way IMO; build your RIA, but if it looks like a button, it better act like a button, otherwise make it look completely different.

Comment by Michael — May 21, 2007

We are faced with multiple interfaces everyday from faxes to washing machines. People have an amazing ability to adapt to whatever interface they are presented with as long it has consistent elements that do what you expect. Can _anyone_ give a real example from the web 2.0 where this has been broken?

Comment by Alistair — May 21, 2007

Alistair: the question is more challenging if you try to find any example where common UI paradigms have not been broken in Web2.0… Google personalised homepage: why you can’t resize frames to your liking? yahoo homepage: what the hell with this huge scrolling JS menu (same fro amazon)? and those are just two on my mind right now! I dig Nielsen when he is very careful about usability and Web2.0…

Comment by Sad Developper — May 21, 2007

Yes, Eduo, I agree 100%. It seems that the phrase “Uncanny Valley” is the new “Perfect Storm”. I stubbed by toe AND was hungry at the same time – the Perfect Storm. Your GUI looks like Windows, but only creepier – Uncanny Valley.

Comment by Perfectimundo — May 21, 2007

Perfectimundo: Exactly. You can see it right here in the comments. Michael above mentions precisely what you say, forgetting that there is no “one true universal and natural” GUI we instintively know and to which we may have an aversion for close-but-not-close-enough copies. Even in Windows, Mac, Gnome or KDE itself applications don’t consistently use the same guidelines. We’ve learned to use GUIs, they’re not natural. We can’t shoehorn a concept just because we like throwing it around.
Michael: Currently, in day-to-day applications, you already face multitude of GUIs. Users have learned to adapt and accept whatever they’re thrown at as an interface (games are a big part of this adaptability, as are “simulated” OS-interfaces like Swing’s). Users have learned to accept baffledness when faced to new applications.

Don’t confuse frustration when assumptions are not met with success with “uncanny valley-ness”, because they’re not even related. Next thing we know banners with shaking screenshots will be considered uncanny-valley because “they’re so close but ain’t”.

Comment by Eduo — May 22, 2007

I’ve always thought the little pointing device/joystick on old IBM Thinkpads must have been subconsciously modeled after a nipple… Uncanny…

Comment by Mark Guinn — May 22, 2007

I am going to side with Eduo here. I think the “Uncanny Valley” concept applies only when one tries really hard to emulate another LAF but can’t quite do it. I quite like Swing apps when they purposely DO NOT try to emulate Windows or Mac or KDE/Gnome – when they try to create their own LAF and adhere to minimal UI design principles. The Javadesktop site has many examples. I have always thought that Swing should just be its own style, rather than trying desparately to emulate others.

When you try to make your own LAF style, like Lazlo, Ext, Flash and properly written Swing, the users will enjoy the experience and adapt as long as its a good interface, regardless of its conformity to its “environment”.

And at some point, we need to break out of and disregard the entire “desktop” and “web” paradigms. At some point, the application should merely be an application, either local or network resident, with the browser itself being totally unobtusive and hidden. As long as the user can navigate, understand and enjoy the interface and the LAF, “browser” and “desktop” metaphor’s should simply disappear.

Comment by Mike — May 22, 2007

Mike, Michael — a situation like Swing apps that resemble the normal Windows GUI but don’t quite get it are definitely annoying, and we react to them differently to the way we react to GUIs that are simply new.

They are NOT an “uncanny valley” experience, without completely redefining that term. Look it up in wikipedia for more info. It’s an important term in robotics and CG “as human as possible” creations, specifically because we have natural empathy for creations with only a few human characteristics, which increases as they get more human, but when they get to “almost human” we are suddenly disturbed and revolted (and there’s a valley of revulsion before you get to “fully human”, where empathy returns).

You can draw very loose parallels to these GUI discussions (e.g., you think you know how a Windows GUI works, so when the Swing GUI looks like Windows, you expect the exact Windows behavior and are annoyed when you don’t get it)… but it’s silly to say it’s the same thing. It’s not even “uncanny” or revolting, and no empathy is involved — it’s just an irritation. Your (sensible) expectations were wrong, so you are irritated.

GUI developers need to think of a new term. “Grating Expectations”?

Comment by Rob W — May 22, 2007

Let’s see some research, because this is all just conjecture without a usability test

Comment by Mike — May 24, 2007

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