many snow white dolls

The Uncanny Valley in User Experience

We have discussed the phenomenon of the uncanny valley here before. It is the phenomenon in which a robot or animation looks enough like a human to trigger our neural human recognition system but unhuman enough to trigger our neural mismatch/somethings wrong system (I can go into the neuroanatomy if someone asks in the comments).

My Take

Clive Thompson, one of my favorite Wired Magazine contributors (as you can tell since I have cited him before), had this article in the May issue. He talks about something Google did for him that hit the uncanny valley.

Recent experiments suggest that I’m not alone in my discomfort. Colin Strong, a marketing consultant in the UK, storyboared several high tech customization scenarios, ranging from the simple (targeted direct mail) to the sophisticated, like health insurance companies crawling info on your food purchase habits to adjust your premiums. When he showed the scenarios to subjects, he found that the more personalized the services got, the more people liked them – until they got too personalized.

It is great when companies customize our experience based on our specific needs. They do it a lot with advertising (not as exciting), but also the activity itself. But when it gets too personal, it gets creepy. If a friend did what Google did, Clive would have appreciated the effort. But Google? Uncanny valley. Creepy.

He cites two examples that I had opposite reactions to. In the first, Google recognized that he was on vacation (geolocation far from home and lots of photographs uploaded) and did him a big favor by curating a slide show of his photographs to show him upon his return. It wasn’t shared externally, so this wasn’t a privacy violation in that sense. But it felt like a personal intrusion, regardless of the quality of the slideshow.

The second example was a physical user experience. A food scientist 3D printed some bananas. One was kind of like a banana, but obviously fake. Sort of a circus peanut version. But it was not too close so it seemed cool. The second was very close to a real banana, texture and all. Respondents reacted poorly to that one. Too close. Uncanny valley.

Your Turn

Do either or both of these hit you in your uncanny valley? I wonder what other areas of user experience have an uncanny valley. Have you experienced one in your own work? Health care? Ecommerce?

[Twitter “Does your #UX hit the #uncanney valley? @Wired”]

Image credit: “Uncanny Valley of Snow Whites” by Alan Levine used under CC BY-SA 2.0

3 thoughts on “The Uncanny Valley in User Experience”

  1. The Google example did not strike me as an Uncanny valley, I think I would appreciate it even if it was an automated gesture from Google.

  2. The one on Google is not what I would consider intrusion in my personal space. It would in fact delight me to relive those moments. I would even be curious to see how close it got to the actual event or manual curation. However, I understand that ‘uncanny valley’ might come into play if Google takes control of things completely, such as forcing me to accept machine curation or not making changes to it, posting for me or informing people about my whereabouts, or even sending out options to eat or shop as I move around the town! I think it is more on how it is implemented…communication done right can invoke confidence or it can be perceived threatening.

  3. Hollywood has always played upon the uncanny valley. Make an alien intelligent, interesting, quirky, cute, cuddly, sexy, or all of the above, and then – wham – make their eyes glow green or something. We want our horror personal, but at the same time not too familiar.

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