So, although it will look like this is a response to Jofish’s comment, I had actually sketched out these ideas this morning before I read his comment, and just didn’t have time to write them up until this evening.
One nuance that I glossed over in my discussion of feedback is one that Jofish rightly points out: that sometimes the designer _wants_ to make the user aware of the tool that they’re using and the assumptions they are making. I conflated the two types of feedback that I talked about in the post. There’s one type of feedback, which is consistent and reliable, which is the type necessary to have a piece of equipment achieve “ready-to-hand” status. But the type of conversational feedback I mentioned in referring to Suchman’s work is different; it is not consistent because it is constructed in response to the user’s specific action. One can not have a conversation with a hammer in hand, because the hammer has disappeared from awareness. For a conversation to happen, the equipment must resurface and be “present-at-hand”, an object in its own right.
So to address Jofish’s point, I guess my statement should be revised to something like “if you want your tool to disappear, to be able to achieve ready-to-hand status, then you need to design for it to have consistent and reliable feedback”. But there are other design goals. Being aware of this design principle regarding feedback will let one understand how one’s tool may be used in interaction. And I’m sure that he addresses some of this stuff in the paper that he refers to, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.
I had a couple other random followup thoughts on feedback.
While feedback should be consistent and reliable if one is designing a tool to be ready-to-hand, it does not necessarily have to be simple. One example I thought of this morning is the violin. The violin is seemingly simple, but it requires a great deal of practice and skill to get to the point where it is comfortable enough and predictable enough to disappear from one’s consciousness, to where the violinist is simply making music without awareness of the violin. I never got to that point myself, but I can imagine. Another example of complex, but consistent, interfaces is in video games. I’m horrible at video games, but I know that when I watch friends play, they aren’t thinking “Okay, now I need to hit A-B left-right-up-up”, they’re thinking “I need to punch my opponent”; the controller is invisible to them. So consistent interfaces does not necessarily mean simple interfaces.
Another case that occurred to me was trying to apply these ideas to user interface design. There’s the canonical example of bad user interface design where the geeky software engineer just puts all of the controls to the program on the screen at once. After all, if everything is available, then all the feedback necessary is there, right? Who wouldn’t want to be able to control every single detail? We can use Heidegger’s distinction to frame an answer. When every single control and indicator is on screen, the user has to stop and study the screen to figure out where the appropriate control or indicator is. This moment of study brings the user interface to “present-at-hand” status, because the user becomes aware of the interface _as_ an interface, as an object in its own right. The user interfaces that stay “ready-to-hand” instead present only the feedback necessary to let the user continue their actions.
This may seem like a contradiction, or at least it did to me just now, in that if the interface is only providing certain feedback at any given time, then the feedback is changing, and therefore isn’t consistent and reliable. But I think this can be resolved by the interface providing consistent and reliable feedback at any given step of the process, such that the feedback is not only consistent and reliable, but also appropriate. It would be like a waiter at a perfect restaurant: never obtrusive, refilling your water glass without you noticing, yet always available when you need to ask them a question.
The ideal user interface would be one that took into account what the user was trying to accomplish and made it easy for them to accomplish it. This is not a new idea, of course. Everybody from Don Norman to Alan Cooper to Jakob Nielsen recommends this. But I feel like I should be able to use some of these ideas I have been reading about and find ways to apply them in a more direct fashion to the kind of problems that face me in my professional life. Part of it is the tricky aspect of figuring out what the user is trying to do when one is unfamiliar with the task oneself. Part of it is figuring out how to organize information so that what is on the screen is considered by the user to be relevant to their goals at any given time. Unfortunately, it seems like it basically comes down to reading minds, and that’s difficult. I grew to the point where I was able to do it at my last job, after working with the same people for a few years, but it’s not something that is transferable to a new environment. The feedback loop is different.
Anyway. I’m going to stop here, and maybe go read that paper. Or go to sleep. Maybe I’ll take BART tomorrow, read that paper, finish the Dourish read this week’s Economist, and all sorts of good stuff like that.