Don't Drive Into the Creepiness Ditch—A New Uncanny Valley for Personalization

November 30, 2015 | John Berndt

Part I: Into the Uncanny Valley

In psychology, the “uncanny valley” is a term used to describe a peculiarity of how people emotionally react to robots and other simulations of human beings. The principle expresses a strange constant in these reactions—namely that as a human simulation (such as a robot or mannequin) approaches realism and gets closer to seeming human, people have a dramatically increased disconcerted or negative reaction. When relatively full realism is achieved, the comfort level of viewers snaps back to high. The precipitous drop in comfort as the simulation approaches (but does not achieve) human realism is called the uncanny valley.

This seems to show that people have an inherent discomfort with gray area where the relationship between humans and their simulations ceases to be explicit, and there is potential for ambiguity about the relationship.

a person and a lookalike robot

As realism increases from low to high, rather than paying off consistently as increased positive feeling and human recognition, it suddenly pays a negative dividend at a certain point. Things become dramatically more eerie right as they get closer to a true match, with the most discomforting zone being that of a close-but-not-quite approximation of humanness. The following famous diagram demonstrates how this plays out: 

chart of the uncanny valley spectrum

What seems to be at play in the uncanny valley is a special anxiety around clarity of categorization at what is a very important juncture for human beings—being able to differentiate a thing from a person. As this becomes harder to do, pre-conscious anxiety kicks in, a negative reaction to the ambiguity itself, as much as to any practical problem associated with not being able to tell the difference (if one even exists, which in most cases it probably doesn’t). In a sense, it is an issue of principle, only one that is somehow hard-wired into human reactions. 

car in a ditchPart II: The Creepiness Ditch

I claim that a similar sort of counter-intuitive principle exists, at least at the current stage of cultural development, in relation to the emerging field of digital personalization. Let’s call this the “creepiness ditch”—a name I use mainly because I don’t want you, the digital team, to drive into it and accidentally alienate your audience. The creepiness ditch relates to the increasing discomfort people feel when a digital experience gets too personalized but in a way that is disorienting or uncomfortable for the user. A site may be somewhat personalized and add subliminal value to users without their being consciously aware of it—a low-key and implicit fit with the user’s needs.

As personalization intensifies, there is a crossover point where the targeting becomes impossible to ignore, and the user begins to have to consciously think about the extent of personalization and the fact that it might not always line up with what the user wants. Maybe the user hasn’t consciously thought that they want the site to be personalized (even if some measure of utility is being contributed by the personalization), and now, the fact has become impossible to ignore. The digital experience has crossed the line, and creepiness ensues.

The progression to and through the creepiness ditch looks something like this: 

chart of the creepiness ditch spectrum

The creepiness ditch is the uncomfortable space between a low-key digital experience that is subtly over-personalized and one that is explicitly all about personalization like Amazon, Facebook, or a strong modern Intranet (where personalization has converged again with user expectations). This is important to people because (and you’ll hear an echo here), it is an important juncture for people to differentiate between what is digitally theirs and what exists neutrally independent of them. 

In fact, though people don’t necessarily think of it this way, knowing how targeted a digital experience is can be a key piece of context to understanding at all what you are looking at. In a famous example, “am I looking at all the available information about political conspiracy X or just what Google is showing me because it thinks I am right or left wing?” The creepiness ditch is the zone where one can't immediately judge if one is seeing targeted content or not, and subconsciously, one feels disoriented, as if one has driven off the side of the road into a ditch.

Part III: Did I Really Try to Open Up a Bait Shop?

From my perspective, there are three interactive dynamics strongly at play here:

  • A Sense of Permission

This is far from a straightforward concept because it relates to evolving cultural norms of digital usage. What a user expects, and how that expectation relates to his/her sense of permission.

For instance, by using a particular kind of site, a user may be aware that he/she is tacitly providing permission (for instance, signing up for a site that is clearly highly personalized by nature—like Netflix). Single content-silo applications and websites (such as eCommerce sites, in some cases) may also be more naturally personalized without explicit permission because they are more purely functional for the user.

In other cases, where the user expects to exercise more control over a broader range of options (an institutional website, for instance, or a multi-purpose app), much more explicit permission needs to be requested from the user, for instance, an app asking to use geographic location to provide more targeted results. These norms may change over time—shifting the thresholds of what people consider proper.

  • Self-consciousness

In many ways, the norms of the digital space are both inexplicit and somewhat vague. For users, there are many junctures where they expect things to work one way but may be surprised by another. There is a threshold below which a user will accept increased relevancy, utility, and interest of digital offerings without thinking much about them, but at a certain point, such inexplicit personalization starts to feel claustrophobic and invasive. The user may vaguely know that personalization has been in play (or suspected), but at a certain point, over-personalization makes it impossible not to consciously focus on the fact that the experience is not neutral.

  • Quality of Targeting

A complicating factor here is that a sense of permission may interact with the actual quality of the personalization strategy and its implementation. The same general setup may be far less provocative or disturbing if the personalization of the experience is on point. If personalization makes the experience incongruous or jagged, then it is more likely to trigger a sense of violation, confusion, or over self-consciousness.

If I once searched on a “how-to” website for “how to open a bait shop” just for fun, and now, due to bad personalization implementation, the site keeps reminding me of my central interest in bait shops for years to come, then it is much more likely to draw my attention to the targeting and the fact that I haven’t explicitly chosen it. We’ve all experienced in the days of Google retargeting, where we look at something on the Web casually (say, a ceiling pendant lamp) and for months after we are hounded by that very thing that we’ve looked at. Apply that sort of thoughtfulness to your own digital properties and you can expect to drive headlong into the creepiness ditch. 

Part IV: Don't Drive Into the Ditch!

In summary, digital strategists and Personalization Mechanics need to very carefully take into consideration these dynamics and build their plans such that they avoid the creepiness ditch altogether. This may mean a combination of moderating the density of inexplicit personalization to assure quality—especially in relation to repetition or the time-based dimension—and making denser personalization more explicit, even if in subtle ways, that give the user a sense of permission.

Anything less than that today will creep people out, and your personalization programs can start to do more harm than good. 

About the Author

John Berndt

I'm CEO of TBG and I've been thinking about the Web in creative ways since the year it began.

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