Saturday, May 19, 2007

Tthe Uncanny Valley of user interface design

Designing to meet the users expectations ...

"There’s a theory called ‘The Uncanny Valley’ regarding humans’ emotional response to human-like robots. From The Wikipedia entry:

The Uncanny Valley is a hypothesis about robotics concerning the emotional response of humans to robots and other non-human entities. It was introduced by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970 […]

Mori’s hypothesis states that as a robot is made more humanlike in its appearance and motion, the emotional response from a human being to the robot will become increasingly positive and empathic, until a point is reached beyond which the response quickly becomes strongly repulsive. However, as the appearance and motion continue to become less distinguishable from a human being’s, the emotional response becomes positive once more and approaches human-human empathy levels.

This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a “barely-human” and “fully human” entity is called the Uncanny Valley. The name captures the idea that a robot which is “almost human” will seem overly “strange” to a human being and thus will fail to evoke the requisite empathetic response required for productive human-robot interaction.

While most of us don’t interact with human-like robots frequently enough to accept or reject this theory, many of us have seen a movie like The Polar Express or Final Fantasy: The Spirit Within, which use realistic - as opposed to cartoonish - computer-generated human characters. Although the filmmakers take great care to make the characters’ expressions and movements replicate those of real human actors, many viewers find these almost-but-not-quite-human characters to be unsettling or even creepy.

The problem is that our minds have a model of how humans should behave and the pseudo-humans, whether robotic or computer-generated images, don’t quite fit this model, producing a sense of unease - in other words, we know that something’s not right - even if we can’t precisely articulate what’s wrong.

Why don’t we feel a similar sense of unease when we watch a cartoon like The Simpsons, where the characters are even further away from our concept of humanness? Because in the cartoon environment, we accept that the characters are not really human at all - they’re cartoon characters and are self-consistent within their animated environment. Conversely, it would be jarring if a real human entered the frame and interacted with the Simpsons, because eighteen years of Simspons cartoons and eighty years of cartoons in general have conditioned us not to expect this [Footnote 1].

There’s a lesson here for software designers, and one that I’ve talked about recently - we must ensure that we design our applications to remain consistent with the environment in which our software runs. In more concrete terms: a Windows application should look and feel like a Windows application, a Mac application should look and feel like a Mac application, and a web application should look and feel like a web application."    (Continued via Bill Higgins)    [Usability Resources]

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