Is there any relevancy or relationship between anthropomorphism and natural user interfaces, in particular with multi-touch surface interfaces?

Since the idea of anthropomorphism gives a connotation of humanistic personalities, would designers' process of humanising natural user interfaces in some way achieving partial anthropomorphism?

It seems to me that the two ideas have some sort of linkage though it isn't clear in my mind. Moreover, there have been articles preaching designers to avoid anthropomorphism, which makes me wonder then why humanise interface.

  • Please could you post the articles preaching designers to avoid anthropomorphism? I am stunned to hear this as in Interaction Design, beyond human-computer interaction, it says “furnishing technologies with personalities and other human-like attributes makes them more enjoyable and fun to interact with. They can also motivate people to carry out various activities, such as learning.” — I tend to agree, you only have to look at virtual assistants to see the value.
    – DigiKev
    Jan 29, 2012 at 22:40
  • @DigiKev The confusing thing is sometimes anthropomorphism seems to happen naturally without having the designer to furbish a computer with it. For instance, when a computer isn't working exactly as expected, people tend to say the computer is "crazy" or "cranky". People seems to perceive the computer with personalities. Would this be in some way a form of anthropomorphism? Here's a link that I read to avoid anthropomorphism on computers: uwf.edu/edd/internal/Documents/Anthropomorphism.htm
    – xenon
    Jan 30, 2012 at 2:25
  • An Embodied Agent is probably the most visually anthropomorphic sort of interface. However anything like giving the interface or copy a "personality" would also be anthropomorphism.
    – Ben Brocka
    Feb 1, 2012 at 21:20

3 Answers 3


Anthropomorphism is the propensity people have to attribute human qualities to animals and objects

For example, people sometimes talk to their computers as if they were humans, treat their robot cleaners as if they were their pets, and give all manner of cute names to their mobile devices, routers, and so on.

Interaction Design, beyond human-computer interaction, 3rd Edition, Rogers, Sharp, Preece

In computing, a natural user interface, or NUI, is the common parlance used by designers and developers of computer interfaces to refer to a user interface that is effectively invisible, or becomes invisible with successive learned interactions, to its users. The word natural is used because most computer interfaces use artificial control devices whose operation has to be learned. A NUI relies on a user being able to quickly transition from novice to expert.

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

I don’t believe there is any relevancy or relationship between anthropomorphism and NUI. Certainly not in multi-touch surfaces. Yes, you are using your hands and gesturing on touch interface, but is this really humanised? In my opinion touching a glass screen to interact with something is pretty inhuman and unnatural. Our hands are capable of so much more, we can grasp, clasp and feel all manner of textures.

Your question:

Since the idea of anthropomorphism gives a connotation of humanistic personalities, would designers' process of humanising natural user interfaces in some way achieving partial anthropomorphism?

Because NUI is about the invisible aspects of the interface, or those that become invisible over time with successive learned interactions, the way you would achieve anthropomorphism would be if artificial intelligence could learn how a user interacts with an interface, makes those interactions more bespoke to the user, so that they can become more expert in their usage, but also increase the propensity for that user to attribute human qualities to it. For instance, if it were a voice interface, it may start out very synthetic and computerised. As it learns how the user interacts with it, it can become less synthetic and more human in how it responds to and perceives commands.

Going back to your main focus on multi-touch interfaces. I can’t see how anthropomorphism can be applied to this.


I think a "good" example of anthropomorphism in a UI would be the infamous paper clip.

Touch screens and NUIs don't relate to anthropomorphism - One refers to interfaces with which you can interact as you would if they were physical (e.g. drag and drop) and the other refers to interfaces that imitate humans. (Check out Wikipedia or Google for definitions if you want.)

I suppose you could combine the two e.g. a human-like character which you can interact with using a NUI, but that is besides the point.

  • Can you clarify your second sentence? What are you basing this on?
    – Rahul
    Feb 1, 2012 at 21:38
  • You should update your answer with your explanation. It would help if you could provide a reference source that backs up your statement (however obvious it may seem) that can help the OP and future visitors. :)
    – Rahul
    Feb 1, 2012 at 21:46

While I'm sure you could anthropomorphize some parts of a NUI to build an emotional bond between your system and the user, it is my understanding that, as a NUI designer, it is paramount that you distill real world actions into elements that are easily recognizable (and seem natural) to the user. This is more important than making nonhuman objects seem human.

I do think that the use of anthropomorphization can be used effectively to build sympathy and relationship with a system, however it might not necessarily mean that that system is any more user friendly or conforms to the principles of a Natural User Interface.

As mentioned in a previous thread, I suggest reading Brave New World. It should help clarify for you the best practices for thinking about and designing a Natural User Interface.

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