Why Products Suck #12: Wrong or No Feedback

Part XII in an ongoing series of Why Products Suck (and what we can do about it).

I recently purchased a Bosch dishwasher. Bosch dishwashers are supposedly a model of German engineering and design, a beautiful, functional object to have in your kitchen. And, indeed, it looks great and thus far cleans dishes very well.

However, when the cleaning cycle is done, the dishwasher emits a series of high-pitched beeps that repeat forever until you manually turn the dishwasher off. To say it’s annoying is an understatement.

Examining the control panel was no help: there was no button to change the settings that I could tell. I next consulted the manual. In order to turn the screeching off you have to:

  1. Open door. Press on/off button.
  2. One of the Wash Cycle LEDs will be flashing.
  3. Press and hold the > button. [Oh, that’s obvious], then press and release the start/reset button. Now release the > button. [Ooook.]
  4. Clean and one other LED will be flashing. You are now in the options setup mode. Press > to select the option you would like to adjust. [There is no display panel, so you can’t simply push > to find the right one.]
  5. With Clean, Sanitized and Rinse Agent LEDs flashing, you can set the Cycle Completion Signal. [Again: obvious. Duh.]
  6. Press the ≺ button. Wash cycle LEDs will illuminate. When 0 LEDs are flashing, the cycle completion signal is off.
  7. Press Start to save your setting.

So let me get this straight. After doing this complex set of instructions, the way that I know I’m at the setting I want is when nothing is happening—when there is no feedback.

I sympathize with the Bosch designers: they had to make an interface that worked with no screen and few buttons, and it’s good practice to hide something as little used as settings. But not only does the intrusive feedback of the cycle’s end suck, the way to turn it off relies on an absence of feedback. I have no way, short of running the dishwasher through a full cycle to know if it worked or not.

It’s not just the Bosch designers who create products with poor or no feedback. (Let’s call a lack of feedback Feedlack.) At the risk of sounding like a cheap comedian, my favorite feedlack is on airplanes, for the oxygen mask: “Even though oxygen will be flowing, the bag will not inflate.” What? I really need to know that oxygen is flowing, thank you very much.

There are all kinds of ways feedback can be poorly done:

  • Over signaling. For example, badges that blink or bounce on your desktop when it is not critical to attend to them. For actions done frequently, the reaction has to be proportional to the action, and then weighed against the frequency of its appearing. The more often feedback appears, the less intrusive it should be. Blinking, moving, flashing, changing color rapidly, growing, etc. all play havoc with human’s visual cortex. We’re designed to pay attention to moving objects (because in prehistoric times, that tiger might kill us).
  • Under signaling. The inverse of the previous guideline is for products that are seldom used like ATMs, gasoline pumps, check-in kiosks, mass-transit ticket machines and the like. Here, the feedback must be prominent because of the infrequent use of the product. This is why you see so many instructions and handwritten signs placed on these products because the feedback (and instructions) aren’t sufficient to tell infrequent users what to do. This is also why so many cards are left in ATM machines.
  • Overly-long transitions between states. Bill Scott’s rule applies: cut your transition times in half. That animation of the folder opening is awesome the first time, annoyingly slow the 10th time and every time thereafter.
  • Unceasing noises. Unless the action is critical and can be stopped easily (e.g. don’t forget to pull out your ATM card), don’t make a sound repeat on a loop. Even the most pleasant sound in the world like a baby cooing can become aural torture once you’ve heard it dozens of times in a row.
  • Noises at all (in some instances). If a loud, long beep happened every time you pressed a key on the keyboard, you would quickly smash your device. In most cases, sound should be secondary feedback to visual feedback, as a “sweetener” to enhance the visual feedback. Again: apply Bill Scott’s rule and make any sound feedback half as long as you think it should be. This means most sounds are under half a second (500 milliseconds).
  • Inconsistent Feedback. If a user performs an action and gets a positive response, a similar positive action should get a similar response. If one action flashes and the other action plays music, it’s going to be a very confusing product. Consistency in output (a response language) is as important as a consistent input language.
  • Feedlack. Almost every action should get some immediate feedback, even if the feedback is an indicator of “working on the request” or a progress indicator. In product design, an absence of a response is not a response. While hiding the inner workings of a product can be beneficial, opacity in response hinders users from creating a mental model of the product. The only exception to this rule is when preventing accidental triggering. For instance, making a touchscreen very responsive can cause lots of accidental touches from fingertips or palms brushing the screen on the way to performing an action.

How do you know if you’ve gotten the right feedback? Appropriate exposure to the product and testing with users. The first people who have to live with a product are the people who design and build it. If the feedback becomes tiresome for you, it’s likely going to be tiresome for users (unless you are designing something for infrequent use).

Pay attention to speed of response and the length of the response. Shorter is almost always better in both cases.

Make sure every action has some kind of understandble response. Your product should have a consistent feedback language.

Then test with users, in context if possible. If a Bosch designer had sat in my living room listening to the incessant beep of the dishwasher going off for hours, there is no way it would have stayed like that. Watch where users get tripped up and don’t know what the next action should be; it could be a lack of enough feedback. Do longer studies where participants use the product for a week. Initial exposure can sometimes make a product’s feedback seem appropriate (because it’s the first time experiencing them), but over time its feedback faults can become obvious.

Otherwise-amazing products can be crippled by their poor feedback, or, worse, feedlack. It makes using them annoying and frustrating. No matter how cool their functionality is, those products suck.