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Why is feedback important?

Ever watch people at an elevator repeatedly push the Up button, or repeatedly push the pedestrian button at a street crossing? Ever drive to a traffic intersection and wait an inordinate amount of time for the signals to change, wondering all the time whether the detection circuits noticed your vehicle (a common problem with bicycles)? What is missing in all these cases is feedback: some way of letting you know that the system is working on your request.

Feedback - communicating the results of an action - is a well-known concept from the science of control and information theory. Imagine trying to hit a target with a ball when you cannot see the target. Even as simple a task as picking up a glass with the hand requires feedback to aim the hand properly, to grasp the glass, and to lift it. A misplaced hand will spill the contents, too hard a grip will break the glass, and too weak a grip will allow it to fall. The human nervous system is equipped with numerous feedback mechanisms, including visual, auditory, and touch sensors, as well as vestibular and proprioceptive systems that monitor body position and muscle and limb movements. Given the importance of feedback, it is amazing how many products ignore it.

Feedback must be immediate: even a delay of a tenth of a second can be disconcerting. If the delay is too long, people often give up, going off to do other activities. This is annoying to the people, but it can also be wasteful of resources when the system spends considerable time and effort to satisfy the request, only to find that the intended recipient is no longer there. Feedback must also be informative. Many companies try to save money by using inexpensive lights or sound generators for feedback. These simple light flashes or beeps are usually more annoying than useful. They tell us that something has happened, but convey very little information about what was happened, and then nothing about what we should do about it. When the signal is auditory, in many cases we cannot even be certain which device has created the sound. If the signal is a light, we may miss it unless our eyes are on the correct spot at the correct time. Poor feedback can be worse than no feedback at all, because it is distracting, uninformative, and in many cases irritating and anxiety-provoking.

Too much feedback can be even more annoying than too little. My dishwasher likes to beep at three a.m. to tell me that the was is done, defeating my goal of having it work in the middle of the night so as not to disturb anyone (and to use less expensive electricity). But worst of all is inappropriate, uninterpretable feedback. The irritation caused by a "backseat driver" is well enough known that it is the staple of numerous jokes. Backseat drivers are often correct, but their remarks and comments can be so numerous and continuous that instead of helping, they become an irritating distraction. Machines that give too much feedback are like backseat drivers. Not only is it distracting to be subjected to continual flashing lights, text announcements, spoken voices, or beeps but it can be dangerous. Too many announcements cause people to ignore all of them, or wherever possible, disable all of them, which means that critical and important ones are apt to be missed. Feedback is essential, but not when it gets in the way of other things, including a calm and relaxing environment.

Poor design of feedback can be the result of decisions aimed at reducing costs, even if they make life more difficult for people. Rather than use multiple signal lights, informative displays, or rich, musical sounds with varying patterns, the focus upon cost reduction forces the design to use a single light or sound to convey multiple types of information. If the choice is to use a light, then one flash might mean one thing; two rapid flashes, something else. A long flash might signal yet another state; and a long flash followed by a brief one, yet another. If the choice is to use a sound, quite often the least expensive sound device is selected, one that can only produce a high-frequency beep. Just as with the lights, the only way to signal different states of the machine is by beeping different patterns.

What do all these different patterns mean? How can we possibly learn and remember them? It doesn't help that every different machine uses a different pattern of lights or beeps, sometimes with them same patterns meaning contradictory things for different machines. All the beeps sound alike, so it often isn't even possible to know which machine is talking to us.

Feedback has to be planned. All actions need to be confirmed, but in a manner that is unobtrusive. Feedback must also be prioritized, so that unimportant information is presented in an unobtrusive fashion, but important signals are presented in a way that does capture attention. When there are emergencies, then even important signals have to be prioritized. When every device is signaling a major emergency, nothing is gained by the resulting cacophony. The continual beeps and alarms of equipment can be dangerous. In many emergencies, workers have to spend valuable time turning off all the alarms because the sounds interfere with the concentration required to solve the problem. Nuclear power plants. Airplane cockpits. All can become confusing, irritating, and life-endangering places because of excessive feedback, excessive alarms, and incompatible message coding. Feedback is essential, but it has to be done correctly. Appropriately.

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash