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The "Uncanny Valley" Theory Doesn't Apply to Desktop UI

Creating Look & Feel That Transcends the Desktop Operating System

If you design an application that runs on Windows but doesn't look exactly like Windows, so the old argument goes, the effect will be unsettling for users. But sticking to the native look and feel (L&F) should not be the end-goal of designers.

In May of 2007 Bill Higgins penned a thought provoking blog post called, “the Uncanny Valley of user interface design.”  His assertion was that any UI that tries to emulate a modern Windows look and feel (L&F) but is not exactly the same as the native operating systems L&F (i.e. Windows, Mac, Linux), will be unsettling to developers. He refers to this as the “Uncanny Valley.” 

The Uncanny Valley is a theory proposed by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970, that says that people’s impression of robots grows more empathetic as robots become more human looking – but only to a point. There is a point at which the designers make the robot look almost human, but not quite. Humans find this less-than-perfect emulation unsettling and are thus put off by the robot.



Figure 1: The Uncanny Valley

The theory sounds pretty good. It certainly applies to anything that tries to look perfectly human but misses the mark. For example, the characters in the computer animated feature fill “The Polar Express” are often touted as an example of the “Uncanny Valley” because they were so close to looking real they were unsettling. This is also true of the characters in the more recent animated feature, “Beowulf”, which I thought were very weird looking and emotionally flat compared to real life actors. (See graphic on next page...)

 
This column appears exclusively at SYS-CON.com. Copyright © 2008 Richard Monson-Haefel.
(This copyright notice supersedes the one auto-generated at the foot of this page.)

More Stories By Richard Monson-Haefel

Richard Monson-Haefel, an award-winning author and technical analyst, owns Richard Monson-Haefel Consulting. Formerly he was VP of Developer Relations at Curl Inc. and before that a Senior Analyst at The Burton Group. He was the lead architect of OpenEJB, an open source EJB container used in Apache Geronimo, a member of the JCP Executive Committee, member of JCP EJB expert groups, and an industry analyst for Burton Group researching enterprise computing, open source, and Rich Internet Application (RIA) development.

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