Like most tech geeks, I’m excited about the new wave of video game consoles coming out this year. Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Nintendo Wii. You name it, I want it. This despite the fact that with work & a family I rarely have time to play video games anymore.
I came across a PS3 article yesterday that mentioned a term I had never heard before, but that I thought crystalized a phenomenon I’ve personally theorized over the years. It’s called Uncanny Valley.
Uncanny Valley is a theory borrowed from robotics that says that when you have something relatively non-human like a puppy or a teddy bear, people will anthropomorphize it and like the “human-like” qualities of it. However, if you make something too close to human, like a robot, people start to dislike it strongly as they focus on some key, missing detail. Think about the uneasy feeling around corpses, zombies, or prosthetics.
The article makes the point about recent computer animated movies like Polar Express and the next generation consoles have run into this problem. The computer animation is getting more realistic, but ironically people like it less than stylized, non-realistic graphics like The Incredibles.
I think this is a fantastic insight, and it goes beyond computer graphics and robotics.
As a software engineer and product manager, I have always been fascinated with the difficulty companies have migrating between major versions of platforms. In most cases, no matter how good the new version is, a significant minority will hate it and complain ferociously about the disruption of the change.
Naturally, people have tried to solve this problem by trying to make the new version “feel” as close to the old version as possible. Ironically, this seems to fan the flames even more as people focus even more on small differences.
Some of the most successful transitions, like Apple made from classic Mac OS to Mac OS X have been based on specifically not trying to make the new work the same as the old. Sure, there are elements in common, but with Mac OS X Apple specifically did not replicate either the classic Mac OS Finder, or the NeXTStep browser. They did borrow some of the better ideas from each.
I don’t want to turn this into a flame war about whether or not you like the UI decisions Apple made. Instead, I just want to let this new insight flow around inside my head, and think about how it applies to various situations in life.
To my theory about people being “predictably irrational” – this seems like a truly generalized insight. For human perception, sometimes being too close to something, without matching it, can be worse than establishing clear and thoughtful differentiation.
When I now look back on the product and design decisions we have made with eBay Express, I have new insights into the decisions we made. We didn’t do it on purpose, but our rigorous focus on building the most convenient, multiple merchant, fixed-price shopping experience has given the site an identity that is clearly differentiated and unique. The site clearly evokes eBay, and many of the strengths of the eBay brand and community, but it offers a clearly differentiated experience through every page.