Anthropo – morphism

by Jin, 11-04-08 // 7 comments

Ever since I was little, I was obsessed with robots of all kinds. I often day dreamed about having a companion like Doraemon, or piloting a mech like Gundam to fight for inter-galactic justice. I can’t really explain my fascination with robots. I think it has something to do with the way they’re void of human flaws and yet still posses human characteristics.

An·thro·po·mor·phism (ān’thrə-pə-môr’fĭz’əm)
n. Attribution of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to inanimate objects, animals, or natural phenomena.

Anthropomorphism is around us everywhere we look. From the talking animals in children’s books to the GPS in automobiles. We often interact with objects as if they were human. When was the last time you described a car as “sexy,” or cursed profusely at a computer screen?

Why do we have an innate ability to personify non-human things? I can think of several reasons. We do it to invoke imagination and to be entertained in literature and movies; To reduce stress and to raise comfort level in product interface design. After all, we’re human. If an object possesses human characteristics, then it becomes relatable and familiar.

Hailed by many as the Father of Computer Science, Alan Turing developed the Turing Test in the 1950s, a method for measuring a machine’s ability to converse like a human. This was the first attempt at anthropomorphic computing, outside of the science fiction realm.

Anthropomorphism is becoming an important factor in design in modern years. I first heard the term being used in conjunction with product design in an excerpt from Steve Kemper’s book Code Name Ginger, describing Steve Job’s reaction to the Segway, as Tim Doerr was giving a presentation:

“What does everyone think about the design?” asked Doerr, switching subjects.

“What do you think?” said Jobs to Tim. It was a challenge, not a question.

“I think it’s coming along,” said Tim, “though we expect—” “I think it sucks!” said Jobs.

His vehemence made Tim pause. “Why?” he asked, a bit stiffly.

“It just does.”

“In what sense?” said Tim, getting his feet back under him. “Give me a clue.”

“Its shape is not innovative, it’s not elegant, it doesn’t feel anthropomorphic,” said Jobs, ticking off three of his design mantras.

“You have this incredibly innovative machine but it looks very traditional.” The last word delivered like a stab.

When we apply anthropomorphism to a design, the end product invokes a feeling among our users. Ultimately, the persona we create interacts with our users through the product. Treating it as if we were interacting with the users directly, how would we behave? Common sense tells us that if we’re friendly and helpful, then users will love us. Conversely, if we’re tactless and uninformative, then users will reject us.

Since I work mostly on web application interface design these days, I tend to pay extra attention to how the instructions or messages are worded. User friendliness isn’t limited to usability and accessiblity. The copy can also have an impact. I’ve noticed more web sites/apps have started to adopt an anthropomorphic approach in their interactions.

Twitter Error Message
Twitter Password Retrieval Message

By using a natural language interface for its system messages, Twitter comes off as very approachable, instead of machine-like.

There are three types of message styles being used in web applications.

Telegraphic and Fluent are the most commonly used. Each of the three styles has different an effect on users’ psyche.

Designing a personality takes a lot of forethought. If it becomes overly friendly, the user may feel smothered. If it’s too eager to help, then it becomes pesty. If it tries to be too humors, then the user may not take it seriously.

MS Office Clippy

There are other considerations as well. For example, when designing for international audiences, we need to be aware of the cultural differences. E.g. some Asian countries prefer “overly apologetic” while Western users may prefer something more straight forward.

I feel we’ll see more anthropomorphism in how web sites/apps communicate to their users. It should, however, be used where it applies.


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Jarrod 11-04-08

Ah, Clippy… immortalized in my mind by this video:

Very good post, sir!

Ananya 11-04-08

Good article. I am not too sure if Asians prefer “overly apologetic” in terms of web experience. Also Anthropomorphic messages, at times, can get more casual and annoying.

Dmitry 11-04-08

Got to love how Jobs cuts through bullshit and just says exactly what he thinks — no time taken to soften the words :) He may be arrogant but if everyone in your company is afraid to hurt the designers’/developers’ feelings by criticizing their work then you’ll just get mediocre products.

I think Twitter is really good with messages and the whole brand image. Light humor and friendly language helps to break the dry and generic wording people expect. When you read friendly messages you get the feeling that real people made this and you’re interacting with them to some extent, instead of interacting with a boring input form. And don’t forget the Fail Whale — those guys made errors look fun :)

I think this is big and we’ll be seeing more and more products that aim to be anthropomorphic because this is one of the key elements that shapes your experience with those products.

[...] Anthropo – morphism Design [...]

Jin 11-06-08

@Jarrod, that video is very very disturbing… thanks? :)

@Ananya, I meant some Asian countries(at least the ones I’m familiar with like China, Korea or Japan etc). But I’m sure other countries have different customs. So we should do some research before building a personality.

@Dmitry, I think Steve Jobs is one of those victors who get to write the book. Imagine if he wasn’t famous, he’d probably appear on DailyWTF instead. :)

Mark Aplet 11-10-08

Good article Jin, I too have been paying more attention to the wording of messages trying to put them into context of a given task. It would seem that early on I adopted the bad habits of my peers by using a more traditional “telegraphic” approach to my wording. Though it made sense at the time because that’s what the other guys were doing. It’s not the most friendly method.

As stated above, I too think we will begin seeing more anthropomorphic systems in place when more people start seeing the benefit and old legacy systems start to phase out. I can’t wait to see that in action.

Good article Jin!

Jin 11-10-08

Thanks Mark.

I just found out something(and I’m waaay late on this), is just now. They took Jeeves out! Granted, I never used that site before. I find it interesting that more sites are ditching an avatar type of persona, but going to for anthropomorphic language instead. I think it’s a good practice.