The Uncanny Valley: Applying Robotics Principles to your Interface/Web Design

This post is based on another article I stumbled upon from two years ago:

And it got  me thinking: back in 2008 the era of “cloud computing” and even “web desktop apps” (applications that simulate desktop applications, but are hosted online) have come a long way since then.  Google Apps is replacing Microsoft Office, we opt for cloud storage above external hard drives, and even our real life relationships are supplemented by contacts we make online.

As all of these changes take place, I wonder what this is doing to our perception of desktop apps.  Do we look at a web application meant to replace a desktop one and go “Wow, that’s fantastic”

…or do we cringe at the “cannot’s” and “won’t dos”.

There’s a principle in Robotics called the Uncanny Valley.  It states that the more lifelike a robot looks, acts, or seems, the more we pick out the unpolished, un-human bits, and focus on those.  If a robot seems toy-like, cheesy, or metallic, we are quick to write off the flaws.  However, get a robot that can’t be identified between a human, and we start to worry and show emotion.

Web designs are the same.  Not just between web applications and desktop applications, but between two web applications, we compare and contrast the perfections with the blemishes. 

The hard part about this is, it’s all based on perfection.  Your system of choice will always trump and be the mold for which all other applications are measured.

Take GMail, for example:


Anyone who uses Gmail may consider this the i-ching of simplistic design.  It’s well thought out, simple to use, and everything’s well labeled.

Look at a email account, on the other hand…


And you might say that everything is fairly similar… except for the huge ad on the right side! omg omg!!!1

OK you may not say it exactly like that, but considering that’s really one of the only differences between the two sites, you will zone in on that one giant change and maybe nothing else.  (FYI, I actually like Live’s color scheme and layout better, but use Google Apps because of the integration).

So you see, we’ve entered a spot in the design spectrum where the Uncanny Valley affects us all. However, it gets harder and harder to please everyone design-wise as the design pillars (Google, Twitter, etc) establish what they believe good design is. 

The trick: testing.  If you have the budget (and you should!) Hire a UX/UI consultant to come in and take a look at things.  Or, if you’re strapped, hire a few joe schmoes to surf through your site.  Give them a few clear goals, and watch what happens (don’t help them!).  If they are confused by too much information, take stuff away.  However, if they have to dig through nothingness to get to their data, put some back in.  It’s a fine line, but once you get out of the valley, you emerge onto something truly wonderful.