How Important are Avatars?

We’re all familiar with them, but just how powerful are avatars, those digital representations of self? Several recent blog posts reminded me they’re probably more powerful than we realize.

We’re all familiar with them, but just how powerful are avatars, those digital representations of self? Several recent blog posts reminded me they’re probably more powerful than we realize.

In one post Brad Feld describes his decision to switch back to a normal photo avatar after changing to a cartoon avatar for a while, deciding that real photos were better:

“…the power of the photo matters. I’m happier when I see Amy’s picture pop up on my phone. Or, when my partner Jason calls me, I remember our great dinner at Uchi in Austin a few months ago (his photo was taken in front of the sign late at night.) When I ponder the rise of Facebook and Twitter, and reflect on the early coolness of MyBlogLog, the power of the photo seems very real.”

I agree with Brad’s sentiment. I made a decision several years ago to use the same avatar everywhere, for everything. It’s a picture of me that looks mostly how I look, and seems to work well as a first introduction to my face. I have had many people come up to me and recognize me at conferences and events simply because they recognize me from this photo. It’s been very useful.

In another post Kevin Marks made the important point that avatars call the trust code in our brains:

“Trying to model these trust relationships in the computer is fraught with hubris and failure, but what we can do is associate information with people, and display the information form people we know, with their pictures (and names) next to it. Then, our brains can apply the subtle modelling of trust relationships that they have evolved to do so well.”

Trust is a crucial byproduct of avatars that we can leverage in design. In one of my current consulting projects we’re working on what you might call “time to first known avatar”. That is, we are trying to speed up the time it takes for someone new to the service to see a familiar face…the faster they see the face the faster they’ll get comfortable with the software. If the time it takes for them to see a familiar face is too long, then they might very well give up because it doesn’t feel as welcoming. But if we can instill a sense of presence of friends early on, we’ll have tilted the cards in our favor.

A sense of presence in an important principle of human behavior:

The mere presence of others dramatically changes our behavior.

While we can’t literally get people into the same room with software (yet), we can approximate the experience. Showing avatars of people gets us further along this spectrum, and we act differently as a result.

Published: June 1st, 2009

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