Look who's talking
Last week, the nucleus of my household – the fridge, suddenly started acting weird. How did I know this? Well, for starters, when I stepped into the kitchen at an acceptable post-midnight hour and opened the fridge, the light didn’t come on, causing a hiccup in my snacking activities. I concluded that my best friend had perished, so I went to bed with a sour mood and an empty stomach. The next morning, however, my mother seemed unaffected by this damage. Turns out, the fridge was perfectly fine and it was only the light that had stopped working. Obviously I was devastated that I had to give up a night of snacking for my error in judgment, but my fridge’s behavior brought to light an interesting thing about machines. What’s that? Let’s find out.
What is it that tells you your fridge is functioning? Yes, the cool air coming out of the vent. But even before the air hits your face, what you first see is the light. It is the primary indication of the fridge being active. So, in a way, you could say that your fridge tells you it’s on through its light. Similarly, how do you know that a car engine has started? It starts to make a noise. These seemingly natural responses that machines offer are nothing but indicators of their functioning. In design, we call this ‘feedback’. And it’s one of the most important considerations in our field.
Try adding a product to your shopping cart on Amazon and watch the number animate in the cart on the top right corner. Imagine if there was no visual indication of this task. How would you know that the system has registered your request? You would consistently click on the ‘Add to Cart’ button, waiting for some prompt from the system or you would have to navigate to the checkout screen to confirm if your purchase has been recorded. This is easy if you’re just out to buy a handful of stuff, but for compulsive shopaholics like myself, this lack of feedback could be a nightmare. Thus, in the interest of our sanity, good design offers feedback so that we don’t have to perform a task more than once.
This sounds easy, right? Always give feedback on every action that the user makes and voila, you have a well thought-out design. Unfortunately, there is such a thing as wrong feedback. Don Norman, author of ‘The Design of Everyday Things’, writes that ‘Poor feedback can be worse than no feedback at all, because it is distracting, uninformative, and in many cases irritating.’ This is something I experience on a regular basis when I’m using the Facebook App on my iPhone. Each time I want to alter the volume levels, the super intrusive volume panel pops up right in the middle of my screen, entirely interrupting my video viewing. Since my phone reaches the chosen volume level in a microsecond, the remaining three seconds of my time are wasted in waiting for the panel to disappear. This problem, however, was solved by the geniuses at Instagram, who designed the volume panel at the top of the app. It instantly pops up when I need it to, displays my desired volume level and doesn’t dominate my screen, allowing me to seamlessly continue consuming video content on the app. The feedback was instant, informative and most importantly, unobtrusive.
Thus, inconsistent feedback can be just as harmful as bad product design, causing users to expend more time and energy on a task. Which is why, I sincerely requested my mother to get the light in the fridge fixed because using my phone torch to raid out the fridge each night was starting to irritate me as a midnight snacker. In response, all I got was a thrashing for increasing the number of vessels to be washed each day. Well I guess, not all feedback is worth it.