People and Technology

The mentality of feedback

Today I am writing about feedback. The word is used so much these days, however, I think we are failing to meet the standard required to truly show it’s elegance. This post is spurred by a discussion I had with a colleague this week regarding customer feedback on products.

The on-line Merriam-Webster dictionary defines feedback as:

: helpful information or criticism that is given to someone to say what can be done to improve a performance, product, etc.

: something (such as information or electricity) that is returned to a machine, system, or process

: an annoying and unwanted sound caused by signals being returned to an electronic sound system

So the topics discussed in my the conversation with my colleague were: can this concept be used to advance the development of technology? Is it a wise thing to do? From whom would you get that feedback? Is it reliable? I will try to address these questions and perhaps others along the way, based on that conversation.

My main example was open-source software. In short, the idea behind open-source software is that it is developed by collaborative efforts from the public. To elaborate, hypothetically, let us say John wants to develop a software for wireless network security called WiSec. He has some ideas and wants to use program language X to do it. He starts writing code and uploads it to a specific website that has shared software repositories. Cathy is an open-source security advocate, so when she is on the repository and find John’s idea she downloads the source code and works on finding exploits because thats her thing. Now Joe sees the activity on that repository as well so he downloads the code to do some debugging and develpment. Based on their efforts the software is in pre-beta in a couple of weeks and starts to attract more people. Even for testing, not just debugging. And based on the feedback from everyone WiSec  is now at it’s version 1.0 and ready for use.

Based on the example in the previous paragraph, I think that user and consumer feedback are a great way to enhance a technology like WiSec. My colleague however, disagrees and raises a valid point: if you are trying to come up with a product to make money you need to target large masses of people, and perhaps only a few submit to the idea of giving feedback. He gave a scenario as follows: If there is a country (call it country (C) for practical purposes), and (C) has 1000 citizens. If my company makes most of it’s profit from the market in (C), I need to develop a product that satisfies, roughly, 90% of consumers. What if only 10 people gave you feedback, and they all hate a feature in the product would you change that feature? Now if all the submitted comments (10 in number) hate the feature that means that 100% of your consumer sample do not like it. But how can you make a decision without polling the rest of the people who make up your market? And my answer was that we need to invest in making people give that feedback, otherwise I agree with him that the sample is too small to make a decision. He then shifted the conversation with: People are not going to give you feedback, I would not give you feedback! Why, I asked… I have a life, he replied. And this is where I got the title of today’s post.

Here is my response to that, and not just about what he said but what many of us say. The idea of letting someone know that what they are doing is right or wrong largely affects the future of events. This concept of feedback is all around us, in nature, technology, and many human activities. You visit your doctor routinely and they give you feedback based on tests, then you correct some of your actions based on that feedback. Control systems that run on aircraft and spacecraft measure a certain quantity and feed it back to compare it with what the desired value is, and based on that an action is taken to correct for it. We also have feedback in our relationships with others. So my question is: if we do use this concept on daily basis, and we study it to apply it to systems where our lives hang in the balance, why can’t we use it to enhance technology, or a product? Have we gotten so lazy that we expect the entity that wants to provide us with a product or a service has to do all the work to study consumer needs and maybe get it wrong? This would cause consumer dissatisfaction, and much more money to be spent on the product, which translates to a rise in the product cost. Now granted that some feedback a person gives can be ignored because they fall in the lower percentile, but that does not mean that the technology or product is not being enhanced. It only means that the enhancement comes based on the majority of views. And that is why the mentality of “I do not have time to give you feedback, I have a life.” is not a constructive one.

Now take this concept and think of applying it to develop software, or design a new car, work an alternative energy system, or conduct a social experiment. It is a very fundamental but extremely powerful thought. You have the designer, developer, producer, and customer all in the loop to optimize and enhance this technology. I think that is a great concept, but sadly we seem to have abandoned it when it comes to working towards advancements in science, technology, and engineering. And our excuse that we do not have the time is an invalid one and here is why: if you are using the product or service that means that you are currently allotting time from your life for that usage, therefore, you can spend a fraction of that time to give feedback if you care about the development and advancement of it. So, we need to change this mentality and the best way to start is with ourselves. We have to work on wanting to contribute to our advancement, and not only as individuals but as societies and perhaps as humans. This is now more possible than ever with the hyper-connectivity state we live in.

So the next time your phone asks you to rate an app, or the next time a company asks you to take a survey about the service they provide, or the next time you evaluate an instructor, take the time and do so. Because, contrary to what you might think, your feedback is what allows for the continued advancement of the human race.


The feature image for this post is provided by Giulia Forsythe on Flickr. It is licensed under CC 2.0.


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