A paper by Masahiro Mori in the 1970 journal called Energy on Robotics first gave an idea about the thing that is known as uncanny valley. If you are thinking about it, then you need a little explanation on the subject. So, the explanation from the paper itself will suffice and seem satisfactory.
The paper explains that as close people will get into making the robots resemble human beings the result will be more unsettling and make people more uneasy about the prospect. It has been seen over the years that the interest of people has reduced drastically about machines which are too human like. The same thing is true about the computer generated human beings that has been used in the movies like The Polar Express and Beowulf.
The reaction of people about too human like machines is like, something is not right and they feel quite bad to accept those machines. The situation that is created by this is known as uncanny valley.
Designing is moving towards this territory constantly, especially website designing. Getting nearer to reality has become easier because of the faster computers, sophisticated computer programs and software. Adding the 3D effect has become so easy that everyone is trying their hands into it through shadows, lighting effects, textures and many more. There are some side effects of this and that is what has affected some of the sites. Some sites have taken the whole thing in the wrong way and that is why they are getting into the uncanny valley in their user interface. It is not disturbing but is enough to affect the experience of the users.
A little more explanation
When some trends come up that is not always bad, rather sometimes they are quite good as they break the monotony and provide people with new options, but I have an issue with the trends. If you want to know what are the issues then I have to explain that, it is not that I do not like the trends, I like them, but I am not in for trends that are going the wrong way. Various tools have become default action for the designers these days and they are designing based on them.
1. So, the result is like every other website is somehow is the copy of the other site. The problem is the sites are imitating themselves in their designs. The best part is they need not have to put in any thoughts at all. They just have to add the texture and the effects and it is ready.
2. They are designing sites that look good, and the work is being labeled as good by other designers, because no one is delving a little deeper under the surface.
3. The effects used by the users being just copy the designers do not know why it was used in the first place. Moreover, they are not giving any importance to the users. So, the interface is looking like each other and the whole thing is going towards the uncanny valley.
The designers are thinking that they are doing a great job, but what they are not realizing is the fact that they are actually doing disservice for the users. The users are most important for a site and they do not come there to appreciate or explore the brilliance you have used to design the place. They come there for their work, because frankly they have other works to do also, like walking their dogs. So, as simple will be the user interface, they will be more interested into the matter. They do not care much whether the words have letterpress effect or not.
As a designer, it is quite hard to find out the perfect or good design. I want to mean that good design is not something for show only, it must be effective. Some good works are happening in blogs, galleries and sites. We need to take notice of them, appreciate them and we can actually do a lot better than finding the drawbacks of a site. We must design it to make it easier to use and interesting to look at.
Sometimes back I participated in a conference for designer. The experience was highly enriching, but when I got home and tried to write on it I found that I have lost my words. This is when I understood that these conferences are just for designers to feel better as they show what the designers would like to see. The experience of such conferences will never come into use in practical life.
Getting into contact with the users
Apple has been supporting this idea for interface for sometime now and they are taking it seriously by putting the things into use. The glossy buttons, the metal chrome of the iTunes and the guidelines of the iPad, the touch interface seem to be more welcoming to the user than ever. A notepad application that looks clear to the real notepad, instead of looking digital and clean and smart, has far greater chance to click with the users.
The article named Designing for iPad: Reality Check will provide you a better insight into the matter. It will tell you about their exploration and their experience with the matter when they started designing iPad. You will get to see that too much closeness top realism was taking the gadget towards uncanny valley. The interface may look like real but can get thwarted into some areas, like when the book lays open it does in a certain way which is nearly impossible to copy.
A WordPress application like a type writer or a cooking application like a kitchen will drive the whole thing into the uncanny valley. It becomes something that is done for the designer’s sake without a sense of purpose but I can also guarantee that is I put a screenshot into a site I will get to the top of the popularity chart.
If you design a book, the expectation of the user will be that it will function like a book and so the scroll bar will kill the effect completely. It is still astounding that iPad has richer graphic and kindle is a preferred e-reader. If you are to use a metaphor, it must be strong and be helpful for the user.
Make it fun but useful
Using realism in the user interface requires perfect balancing. It is something very delicate. The new apps that I have seen are somehow fun. According to me, they work because they do not overwhelm the users. This little fun interests the users and helps them to learn things, and I could not agree more with this. Some of these apps need relearning, because the designer wanted to be overly clever and that is why you have problems with some apps, but some others are simple enough to navigate around.
Though that application looks like fun, some parts are still tasks, like buying iTunes. If the iTunes store looked like a jukebox then the fun would have been missing in the next visits. Loving some effects is quite easy, but using it everywhere is something that we need to worry about. We want to be creative and design something unique to sell the product, but we need to question ourselves about the approach and try and do a balancing act on style and function.