“Can I give you some feedback?”
You brace yourself — what follows will probably be unpleasant.
You’ve likely heard a colleague open a conversation with this line. For many people, the word “feedback” has negative connotations. They associate it with criticism of their work or — even worse — themselves.
But feedback is an essential concept.
The gist is cause-and-effect: you do something in the world (or rather, to the world.) The world then tells you something about the results of your action so you can react appropriately.
Of course, most of the time, the world doesn’t “tell” you anything. Instead, your senses perceive the effects of your action.
You walk into the room and shudder from the cold.
You utter that word and see your partner’s expression change.
You draw a line and see it veer.
The cold you feel on your skin, the movements in your partner’s facial muscles, the wobbly line on the page — all of these are feedback.
Sensing what’s happening, you can correct course. You put on a sweater. You apologize to your partner. You adjust your hand slightly. This type of mundane feedback (as opposed to your colleague’s more formal critique) is crucial to doing anything.
For example, a big part of learning to draw is internalizing the relationship between your hand’s movements, the feeling of the pen — its weight and girth, its grippiness, the friction between its tip and the paper — and the resulting lines.
Practice is about making tiny adjustments to get closer to the intended results. You can only adjust if you tune into the signals you’re getting from the world.
Switch to a pencil, and you must adjust again. Conceptually, you’re still drawing. And you can get far with what you learned on the pen. But the pencil has different particulars. Theory ≠ practice.
Skillful action demands that you master the particulars. You can only do that if you pay attention to feedback.
Feedback is central to design. The design process entails making things in the world — sketches, diagrams, prototypes — and validating them.
At first, you validate only with yourself. The first draft doesn’t look quite right, so you draw another. The next version either looks better or not. So you make another. And another.
Eventually, you put the prototype in front of other people. You gauge their reactions and tweak things based on what you learn. You do it again. And — if you have the budget — again.
Feedback is also central to design because it’s how people interact with the things you design. They do things that produce reactions in the system.
If the effects of their actions are unclear — if users can’t see “how the line veers” — they won’t be able to adjust their behavior. Learnable interfaces provide useful feedback.
So you design with feedback. But you also design for feedback.
Shed the negative associations. Embrace feedback for what it is: core to skillful action and good design.
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