Maker Thinking

Is there an Uncanny Valley for hardware projects?

The concept of the Uncanny Valley comes from robotics, its hypothesis says that when humanoid robots move and feel almost, but not completely like the real thing, they can be more off-putting than the robots that have less human likeness.

Working on quite a few hardware projects these days, I started to wonder (okay, say it out loud: worry), that there’s an uncanny valley for hardware projects as well. My theory goes such that hardware projects that are almost, but not completely professional can be more off-putting (or underwhelming) than less advanced, clearly maker projects and prototypes.

Uncanny Valley sketch
The hardware project Uncanny Valley sketch

To give a few examples of cases that I feel might fall into this uncanny valley:

  • a gadget that moved on to more advanced, surface-mount components, but they are hand-soldered (instead of done with a reflow oven). Functionality is the same (hopefully), but the visual appearance is always a bit less organized
  • a project that has very detailed documentation, but not quite a complete manual, leaving just enough uncertainty to possibly frustrate some semi-advanced users
  • packaging / invoice done nicely but not as good or clear or standardized as e.g. a Mouser order (just as an example), going overboard with what to include or not going far enough (quick start guide, any help, disclaimers, policies – are they needed, and if yes, in what depth to cover the topic?)
  • communication is more polished but still fall short of professional customer service in clarity, or hitting the right tone, or being too corporate-y (or too little), taking just a bit too much time to reply to questions, and so on….

I guess many of these issues arise around the time when makers want to start earning a few buck with their work, and not everyone is prepared to cross this region of professionalism. But if there’s a valley, you’d better stay on the low side, or fight through to the upside with plenty of effort.

If there’s a valley like that, I guess it’s still a good problem to have, and platforms like Tindie (the indie hardware marketplace) do a good job of throwing people into the deep end into these issues. I myself trying to figure out whether I’m in there yet (and whether I’m making progress). I might just be overthinking this…

So what do you think, is there such an Uncanny valley for hardware? If there is, have you experienced and survived it? (any advice if you did?;)

Edit (2015 Aug 28): this post got a surprise mention on The Amp Hour podcast where Chris Gammell of Contextual Electronics and Dave Jones of EEVblog discuss all things electronics. Glad they (pretty strongly) disagreed, that means I’m overthinking it for the lack of experience (compared to them for sure). The part about this is between 5:00-15:00, but the whole podcast is good! (And I’m fan of their sites too:) Cheers~

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