The Uncanny Valley of User Interface Design

Bill Higgins has penned a thoughtful meditation on web design entitled The Uncanny Valley of User Interface Design. (For those who don’t know it, the uncanny valley is a concept from robotics that posits that there is a point where increasing imitation of human behavior actually makes a robot seem less human. Pretending to be what you’re not at some point becomes creepy.) Bill writes about “the uncanny value of emulated software interfaces”:

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…. Obvious, you say? I’d agree that software designers and developers generally observe this rule except in the midst of a technological paradigm shift. During periods of rapid innovation and exploration, it’s tempting and more acceptable to violate the expectations of a particular environment….

Bill reminds us of the failure of Microsoft’s Active Desktop and of Java applets, and points out that he sees the same error happening today with Ajax apps:

Just like Windows/Mac/Linux apps have a native look and feel, so too do browser-based applications. The native widgets of the web are the standard HTML elements – hyperlinks, tables, buttons, text inputs, select boxes, and colored spans and divs…. Like the web and Java before it, the availability of Ajax technology is causing some developers to diverge from the native look and feel of the web in favor of a user interface style I call “desktop app in a web browser”….

Bill contrasts Zimbra and Gmail:

To me, Zimbra doesn’t in any way resemble my mental model of a web application; it resembles Microsoft Outlook. On the other hand Gmail, which is also an Ajax-based email application, almost exactly matches my mental model of how a web application should look and feel. Do I prefer the Gmail look and feel over the Zimbra look and feel? Yes. Why? Because over the past twelve years, my mind has developed a very specific model of how a web application should look and feel, and because Gmail aligns to this model, I can immediately use it and it feels natural to me.

I think Bill is onto something. Read his full essay, study the examples he links to, and let us know whether you agree.