Polar Bears and the Art of Interface Design

Try as they might, the animators couldn’t find and delete LazyEye.cpp from the render farm servers.

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.

Next, the RAZR came out during the candy-bar phase of phone design. Thin was conceptually appealing and metal suggested rugged luxury. It fulfilled our vision for a cellphone for that period. However, Motorola didn’t maintain that visionary stance and began floundering, first launching something far ahead of its time, the PEBL (see the current crop of Samsung phones for the direction that design language is heading) didn’t “work” in its environment.

The Asimo problem also pops up when hardware crashes. In the old days, when hardware crashed, we expected and accepted it. It was a “machine” and faulty and the BSOD was OK simply because we didn’t expect much more out of a Windows desktop at that point in the game. It’s like a wristwatch. Everyone knows watches stop if they’re broken. It’s jarring, it renders them useless, and you can accept it and know where to take it — a Windows machine to CompUSA for repair and a watch to the fellow on the corner. A stopped watch, just like a stopped Windows machine, will make you miss appointments and piss you off, but that idea was built into the man-machine contract at that point. It would take years to repair that contract.

As devices became more ubiquitous — PDAs, cellphones, laptops, and the like — we became accustomed to always-on accessibility. Take a router, for example. When it works, it works well. However, once it fails or becomes corrupt, the entire contract is broken. Network problems are particularly insidious because they are all ethereal. If you’re a skilled network admin, the problem is easy to fix with some command line tools. If you’re not, you’re stuck. You can’t go back to the familiar set-up screens you’re used to, you can’t get onto the Internet for help, and all you have for feedback are colorful lights. The router is a “living thing,” helpful and useful, until it becomes a brick.

This same concept applies to phones and other devices. What excites people about the iPhone is that they expect it to follow the same superior UI design as OS X and the iPod. The iPod, as evidenced by multiple stories about how the “shuffle” function seems to “know” its owners, is well within that uncanny valley. When it fails, people throw it away. It does not seem to be something mere mortals can fix simply because it is almost seamless and the software cleverly hides the nasty business of file logistics. It just works and anything that doesn’t look like an iPod, at this point, is completely alien. Say what you want about your hot Creative or iRiver player. Market share rules the roost here. This concept is always why it’s so hard for iPod users to accept drag-and-drop MP3 players and why the Zune created an entirely new desktop application. The iPod uses iTunes. Duh! Anything else is gross and primitive.

So what is my advice to manufacturers? Fail gracefully. Create products that people are comfortable with and don’t listen to marketing when they tell you to put a “BUY RINGTONES” button on your latest phone or free trial software on a new device. Free trial software is way outside of our expectations. When I open a box, I expect everything on the device to be mine. It shouldn’t belong to someone else until I pay even more for that functionality. Mossberg was right. People notice, and hate, trial software.

I almost constantly harp on my love of Danger’s Sidekick operating system, but it’s a perfect example or something within our expected contextual parameters. Why is it popular? It does exactly what it was advertised to, tells you when the memory is full or something went wrong and fails gracefully, and is designed to the exacting specifications of its target audience. I type in my logins, wait a second, and I’ve got email and AIM. I need some software? There’s a little download catalog right inside the device. I want to play a game? There’s one in there, it’s free, and it’s pretty good. Don’t piss me off with two levels of Bejeweled and make me pay $10 for the privilege of buying 10 more.

I think the Ocean can enter this space, but even the Ocean has jarring incongruities that, to my eye, were a bit off-putting. That is not to say it’s a bad phone — or anything is categorically bad in the gadget-o-scape — but expectations are dangerous stuff.

I feel like this rant has gone off topic, somewhat, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about these past few weeks. My expectations — as someone who sees a lot of tech without having to go to a store or pay for it — are much different than the someone who saves up a few hundred bucks for that great new phone and, in a sense, fetishizes it due to that process. Things that are hard to get — from precious stones to Wiis — gain value and prominence because of their scarcity. However, that does not mean that devices can be all marketing and no meat. If the device I buy doesn’t match my almost universal notion of that device’s capabilities and limitations in a particular context, I’ll fire up eBay, sell it, and tell my friends and neighbors to stay far away.