Monday, February 16, 2015

The Uncanny Valley of User Interfaces



Of all the things to get peeved about, you wouldn't think commercials would be one of them.  In spite of avoiding commercials by cutting the cable cord, I have found myself employed at a place that runs ESPN 24/7.  While it's not as bad as commercials on Fox News, certain commercials have begun to irk me for reasons that only a software guy can understand.  In general, I believe this revulsion can teach us how to test user experiences.

To start, allow me present two exhibits: Jillian Michaels for Nordic-track and Trivago Guy for Trivago.  Have you watched them?  Good.  Are ads for them already populating your sidebar?  Allow me to apologize.  So, did anything bother you?

Now, here is a second exhibit: Fiddler on the Roof.  I'm sorry if I ruin this for you, but the fiddler is not actually playing his instrument.  In high school, I saw this movie once in class, and again after I spent a year in orchestra.  The second time through, I knew as little about playing the violin as one can, and it still bothered me that the fiddler wasn't successfully playing in sync with the music.  The distraction caused by bad miming is well documented.  Recent Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle has it.  Other movies aren't immune either.  Even a talented musician can be affected by it without equal attention to production (try not to notice the out-of-sync miming and white truck in the background 52 seconds in).  The core problem is that you need to train someone who is good at acting to fake a highly skilled activity convincingly enough to keep the audience's focus.  If the audience knows even a little, their belief is unsuspended, and you can lose all credibility.

Normally, this is fine.  in a two hour film or season of a television show, the viewer is pulled in by the drama.  The story isn't about how well the artist can play the violin; it is about the character's story. Also, most directors can rely on the majority of their audiences not knowing what skilled activities like playing the violin and hacking actually look like.  Camera tricks can make some instruments easier to fake than others.  Furthermore, some miming has become acceptable and celebrated through parody.  We know it's hard to convey on film.  Should that mean we don't tell this story?

Unfortunately, there is a class of film that cannot rely on the social contract to ignore non-experts acting out difficult skills.  Its short format leaves no time to pull a person back in after having been jarred from their witless stupor.  What pitiless medium is this?  Commercials.  In 30 seconds or less, the disingenuous spokesman is called out.  The thankless medium that pays for most of our entertainment is reviled for cheesy effects, leaps of credulity, and now one more heresy: poorly mimed user interfaces.

Let's return to our exhibits, shall we?  Nordic-track wants to sell us another piece of exercise equipment that we will only use as long as we are paying for it.  To do this, they've strapped on a touchscreen to navigate workouts.  What does Jillian Michaels use to navigate?  Two fingers, and she watches the screen as she swipes left.  Thinking back to your own interactions with iPads, touchscreen kiosks and mobile phones, when have you ever watched the old screen disappear?  And when have two fingers ever been used to navigate a touchscreen?

The second is Trivago Guy.  Not only has he drawn attention for being creepy, but his ham-handed interaction with the user interface makes me cringe.  Poking at points on a calendar, full-handed presses of the Search button, and similar miming make me look up from my desk and gag.  Similar interactions with after-effects like those in the Endurance Extended Warranty commercial make me wonder if anyone thought to proof the commercial before buying ad spots day after day, year after year.  An alternative explanation would be that the producers honestly think this is the way people interact with computers.  Either one disarms the viewer and places the product as unfavorable in their eyes.

I would like to propose that each of the above cases can be grouped together as potential examples of the Uncanny Valley.  As a movie viewer familiar with how a violin is played, I connect notes and the movement of bow in a way that the uninitiated cannot.  I reject the characterization as invalid for a brief period, but my emotions pull me back in with other human interactions elicited by the actor's performance.  For these commercials, this does not happen.  The terrible user interface interactions remove focus from the message of the commercial, and it is judged as unfit just long enough that I reject the product on offer.  Worse, subsequent viewings reinforce my first impressions.

Generalized lessons in the User Experience design space are many.  After testing a new user interface, I have found it helpful to let the uninitiated take it for a spin.  While I have been long-desensitized to bad interaction by other considerations ("It actually works once you get used to it!" being one, "I just want to be done with this." being another), initiates see the unnatural interaction, and one can read the revulsion in their face even when they don't come right out and say it.  This commercial for the new product is a failure, and I don't wait around to see them lulled into the same sense of security.  It stinks, they know it, and now I do to.  While users might not be expected to use a new interface right away, something that is counter-intuitive from the start should be avoided.  Depending on the medium, counter-intuitive steps can be overcome, but not without good decisions elsewhere to draw the user back in.
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