Creepy Usability: “Speaking Characters” & the Uncanny Valley Effect

This, faithful readers, is merely my opinion; it does not in any way reflect the views of my coworkers or my employer. I mean, I’m right,
but they can believe what they want.

Speaking characters, the little internet helper faces that “talk” to you and follow your cursor around with their eyes, disturb me. Nauseate me, in a way both physical and existential. Like clowns after midnight, or clowns in general, really, they’re horrifying. Their very names, generally something like “Web Buddy” or “Net Pal,” evoke loathing. In an effort to present a human face, to allow users to interface with a “person,” speaking characters present a monster.

I don’t think I’m alone.

In 1970, Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori posited the Uncanny Valley Effect; simply put, humans feel an innate attraction and an attendant empathy that grows in response to a robot’s “human-ness,” but only up to a point. After that point, as the robot becomes more, and then too, human, humans feel an innate repulsion. A disgust. Thus the too-human but not-human-enough robot puts a big ol’ damper on effective human-robot relations, because it makes us ill.

This “Uncanny Valley” lasts until the robot can perfectly mimic a human, until you can’t tell anymore.

There are many simple things you can do to make your website friendly without scaring the crap out of people. If you want to attract and keep users, have your navigation make sense. Give us breadcrumbs so we can find our way home. Put the information about your products and services where we want it. Use your own site once in a while. Ask your friends and family if they like the font, the color scheme, etc.

Don’t, don’t, DON’T make us sit through endless flash intros; if you, like many people, are hopelessly married to the flash intro, give us a way to skip it. We’re not that impressed, and if we have to sit through your damn pony show every time we try to use your site we’ll take our business elsewhere.

And please don’t rely on a creepy/friendly face; that thing ain’t human, and I can tell.