Sunday, May 20, 2007

Polar Bears and the Art of Interface Design

More thoughts about the Uncanny Valley ...

"Bill Higgins brings up quite a few interesting points in his article, “the Uncanny Valley of user interface design.” Read it before you read this. Essentially he’s saying that there is a “sweet spot” that user interfaces — be they desktop programs or even physical systems like robots or dashboards — must operate within in order to be acceptable to the average user. This sweet spot changes by context and requires that an interface follow certain unwritten expectations in order to be accepted. His example? The characters in Polar Express and most video games look creepy because we expect humans to look and act in a certain way in realistic environments, but the Simpsons look just fine simply because we expect them to be yellow and bulbous.

Bill goes on to describe a few examples from the programming side of things, but I’d like to talk about some examples from the hardware side and how manufacturers can use the “uncanny valley” in their designs.

Take this Asimo fall. Asimo is a perfect example of the “uncanny valley” phenomenon. It — not he or she, although I had to stop myself from using those words — moves so smoothly and with such organic fluidity that you imagine Asimo is human. Its movements fit within the boundaries of human movement, it looks like Neil Armstrong in a spacesuit, and it is foreign enough, given the context, to potentially be a small Japanese woman dressed like a Go Bot.

But watch the fall. At that exact moment, the illusion is shattered. For the first half of the video, you could potentially invite Asimo to dinner or would let it date your son or daughter. It looks “real.” But as soon as it crashes, quite spectacularly, all sense of humanity is lost. It’s just a computer with legs blue-screening in front of a huge audience.

This concept is also seen in phone design. I suspect, and this is just conjecture, that Motorola’s StarTAC and RAZR phones did so well because they fit the mental model for cellphones at their respective launch points. The StarTAC filled the exact vision we all had of cellphones back in 1996. It had to be small, tri-corder-esque, and cool, unlike the bricks that all the rest of the cell users were buying. It looked easy, portable, and fun — something the phones hadn’t been up till that point. It felt right at that juncture."    (Continued via CrunchGear)    [Usability Resources]

Motorola StarTAC - Usability, User Interface Design

Motorola StarTAC

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