Faces

I have a pet peeve relating to online avatars. Faces matter and it amazes me how many people do not get this.

So many people fail to set up a Gravatar for themselves, which covers many services and apps. Or they upload a weird picture. Or they let an app supply a default, like an egg or some random polygonal pattern.

You often see that people seemingly haven’t noticed that their rectangular photo is being distorted into a square resulting in cropping or worse, stretching. I don’t understand how that kind of thing is acceptable to people, when this is supposed to represent you to people with whom you interact online. Yes lots of people have their TV set to 16:19 for 4:3 content and don’t notice, but… this is your face. It’s easy to see when it is wrong.

It seems that people don’t appreciate the social and emotional importance of faces. Computing and the abstract applications and services we use are inherently inhuman. This makes working with them harder, more stressful and less fun. Reducing these negatives of interacting with computers is the very stuff of user experience and design.

Isn’t it annoying that you have many people in your contacts/address book and other apps and almost none of them have photos? That empty space where their photo should be is criminally wasted because we humans are specially adapted to recognise faces very quickly compared to reading names. You just know who it is without thinking.

The transition in recent years to round clipping masks on avatars should have made it obvious to all. Why did designers start to do this? Hipster aesthetics aside, it obviously reduces the range of images that work well in that context down to a very narrow range of styles, strongly towards those beautiful roundish human faces. Whether this was a deliberate motive of designers or not, that is the clear implication even if it was merely an intuitive leap driven by millions of years of human brain specialisation.

Communicating with faceless individuals day in and day out is weird and often alienating. Knowing what people look like can balance your feelings about their communication with you. It can help you bond with people. It also drastically reduces confusion in multi-way communications.

Get uploading your avatar. Always supply one in new services you sign up with. I look forward to seeing your face soon.

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Marc Palmer (@marcpalmerdev) is a consultant and software engineer specialising in Apple platforms. He created the Flint open source framework. He writes native apps like the music practice app Soundproof for iOS devices for his company Montana Floss Co.. He can also do a pretty good job of designing products. Don't ask him to draw anything, because that's just embarrassing. You can find out more about him here.

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