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

Creating Look & Feel That Transcends the Desktop Operating System

While the Uncanny Valley appears, in the absence of any real scientific data, to be true; it is only so in the context of natural artifacts of our environment (i.e. other humans, animals, plants, rocks, etc). There is a simple reason for this: Humans have evolved over tens of thousands of years to recognize and scrutinize there natural surroundings as a matter of survival.  For example, we are very interested in a persons facial expressions and movement and posture to ascertain their intent.  Anything out of the norm is a signal that something is wrong, so we are hardwired to detect aberrations in appearance.  It is an innate and visceral reaction.

In his blog post Bill Higgins asserts that the same thing happens in UI design for desktop computing. If you design an application that runs on Windows but doesn’t look exactly like Windows, the effect will be unsettling for users. It’s an interesting use of the “Uncanny Valley” theory but it’s fundamentally flawed. People are not innately accustomed to scrutinizing and assessing the characteristics of a desktop UI the way they are humans and other natural artifacts.  The computer UI is a very unnatural thing to begin with, so there is no point of reference from which we can feel uncomfortable. We’ve only been using Windows-based software for about 25 years – its not like our ancestors were using Windows 10,000 BC.

While many people may have agreed with Bill, I found the posting itself to be unsettling.  I’m guessing that more than one designer decided that Bill was right and began to preach the practice of using the native L&F for all application UI design. The trouble with this is manifold. First, the native L&F of windowing systems changes a lot over the years. Look at Windows 3.0 compared to Windows Vista or early Mac interfaces compared to today’s Aqua L&F.  They are pretty different.  In addition, we’ve seen time and again how new L&Fs can actually enhance a users’ experience. The Apple iPhone is very different from any other smartphone UI, yet it’s become enormously popular.  The multi-touch screen is sure to have a real impact on UI design for the desktop as well as devices. Does multi-touch evoke unsettling feelings?  No.

In his blog post, Bill Higgins recommends that people who are developing UIs should avoid the Uncanny Valley by making sure applications on Windows use the Windows L&F and applications on the Mac use the Mac L&F.  The fact that Bill is a developer of the SWT, a Java UI framework that uses the native L&F of the operating system, has surely influenced his perspective.  The Curl platform, my own preferred UI system, also provides a native L&F for Windows, Mac and Linux – but you can skin applications too. The reasoning is that you can have native L&F or custom L&F depending on your preference.

In defense of Bill Higgins I think it behooves non-designers to stick to an established L&F; non-designers like myself are simply not trained in the design of UIs. That said there is no reason why UI designers shouldn’t challenge the status quote. UI designers should be pushing the UI boundaries, trying new things, failing, succeeding, and in the process advancing the human computer interface.  If designers focus on the use of the native L&F of the operating system, rather than inventing new kinds of interaction patterns and L&Fs, than the UI industry is bound to stagnate.

There is one more reason that sticking to the native L&F should not be the end-goal of designers: Application portability.  With the introduction of the fit client, applications are automatically portable across Linux, Windows and Mac. Having a different L&F for each platform makes it more difficult for user to switch from using an application on one operating system to another.  It also makes applications more difficult to maintain and support.  For example, the migration from Microsoft Word on Windows to Microsoft Word (or PowerPoint or Excel) on the Mac is more painful than necessary because the Mac version follows the conventions and L&F of a Mac, rather than Windows. 

As a result, everything on the Mac is located in a different location and follows a different UI pattern. It’s not an approach to UI design that I would recommend for people developing cross-operating system applications using Adobe AIR, Curl, Google Gears, or any other fit client platform.  Instead of using the native L&F of the operating system – which varies in not just looks but also interaction patterns – fit client developers should find a universal L&F that can be used across desktop operating systems. 

This doesn’t mean that everyone should be inventing completely new L&Fs, but it does mean that designers have a unique opportunity today to create L&Fs that transcend the desktop operating system. It’s an opportunity that I hope UI designers will embrace.

Figure 2 (below): The Polar Express & Beowulf



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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