What are Feedback Loops?
Feedback loops are processes where designers use a system’s outputs as inputs to find cause-and-effect relationships within it. Some systems (e.g., the environment) have many feedback loops, and the effects of human actions can take decades to show. In complex systems, feedback loops can hide causal links and problems.
“The human mind is not designed to understand the complexities of all these systems.”
— Don Norman, “Grand Old Man of User Experience”
See why it takes careful insight to work with feedback loops.
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The Long, Winding Webs of Feedback Loops
Cognitive science and usability engineering expert Don Norman identifies 21st century design as the way to address the many complex problems that people face across the world. But the human brain has problems understanding the sheer complexity of many systems. We’re surrounded by interconnected systems that feed back and forth between one another extensively and often imperceptibly. And we’re used to looking for simple answers to understand why certain events happen, preferring nice, direct case-and-effect chains because they make sense. For example, if you click “Buy it now”, you get your desired item.
However, nothing happens in a vacuum. Our planet itself is a giant, extremely complex system that contains many, many subsystems, and human activities impact these, ourselves and other things often in hard-to-see, indirect ways. The feedback we want to find to address the right problem isn’t always clear, since the environment where the many factors are interacting—for example, to cause climate change—is a system of entangled, “moving” parts that touch, and are touched by, many other factors elsewhere. As designers, we approach what Norman terms complex socio-technical systems, which, like wicked problems, are:
Difficult to define.
Difficult to know how to approach.
Difficult to know whether a solution has worked.
What compounds the challenge is that:
Many systems have several feedback loops. When you take an action, result A might not appear but instead impact something else you can’t see (result B) and then affect other things. The first result you notice (e.g., result P) might appear only after a threshold is crossed. Meanwhile, the outputs/effects in between these might have impacted other parts of other systems and produce results that only appear much later elsewhere, or eventually return and influence other things in the system you’re concerned with. Or one might appear once another tipping point has been reached and your system shows a new symptom.
The human brain isn’t designed to follow such non-linear cause-and-effect relationships. A system can have multiple, circular inputs and outputs, and we can’t always appreciate which factors affect which other factors or how. Many remain invisible.
There could be a long delay between the feedback loop’s inputs and outputs. Many years might pass before the effects (or outputs) of a feedback loop manifest, whether the input (cause) is large or small. For example, one new factory causes smog that year, but combined with other polluting agents in the region, its emissions will raise temperatures via the greenhouse effect to affect rainfall, farming, marine life, etc., 20 years later. Meanwhile, the issue also might well have become politicized as powerful lobby groups constantly block remedial measures.
© Michelle Leman, CC0
How to Work with Feedback Loops
Use humanity-centered design to get the best vantage point to understand the outputs and inputs of a system’s feedback loop. Specifically, leverage the approach’s four principles and:
Use people-centered design to understand the world through your target population’s eyes, what they understand the cause-effect relationships are, etc.
Solve the right problem, after deep analysis and (e.g.) using the 5 Whys approach to work your way back from as many effects to causes as possible. Note: sometimes the feeding back will actually be feeding forward, since systems work in complex ways. So, if you isolate one apparent “root cause”, you may uncover another series of causes and effects behind it.
See everything as a system, and use systems thinking. “Societal” and “technical” are terms to always consider. Remember that effects can be far-reaching in the most unpredictable directions.
Take small and simple steps towards sustainable solutions. Specifically, use incrementalism:
Big problems demand big solutions; big solutions are too expensive, disruptive and failure-prone, though. Be pragmatic; “go small".
Once you understand the people you want to help, their situation’s realities and what their environment lets them do, wait for an opportunity to do something small but positive. If it works well, you can repeat/duplicate or improve it. If it fails, it’s still a positive experience as you’ll have learned something
Small steps will also be more likely to win the community’s support.
Success breeds success. If a small step leads to more victories, you’ll win even more community support.
Small steps taken at the right time can lead to the “best solution possible” at any future point—in contrast to a “big fix” taking (e.g.) 10 years, when the whole situation, including the nature of the problem will have changed.
Remember, everything depends on something else happening somewhere else.
© Daniel Skrok and Interaction Design Foundation, CC-BY-SA 3.0
Learn More about Feedback Loops
Take our 21st Century Design course: https://www.interaction-design.org/courses/design-for-the-21st-century
Read insights about feedback loops in this thought-provoking UX Collective piece: https://uxdesign.cc/feedback-loops-everywhere-7dfc5f1a764b
Here’s a fascinating and compelling UX Planet piece that involves feedback loops: https://uxplanet.org/what-does-system-thinking-have-to-do-with-coronavirus-and-why-should-i-care-6b2bd78d7d58
Literature on Feedback Loops
Here’s the entire UX literature on Feedback Loops by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:
Learn more about Feedback Loops
Take a deep dive into Feedback Loops with our course User Experience: The Beginner’s Guide .
User experience, or UX, has been a buzzword since about 2005, and according to tech research firm Gartner, the focus on digital experience is no longer limited to digital-born companies anymore. Chances are, you’ve heard of the term, or even have it on your portfolio. But, like most of us, there’s also a good chance that you sometimes feel unsure of what the term “user experience” actually covers.
[User experience] is used by people to say, ‘I’m a user experience designer, I design websites’, or ‘I design apps.’ […] and they think the experience is that simple device, the website, or the app, or who knows what. No! It’s everything—it’s the way you experience the world, it’s the way you experience your life, it’s the way you experience the service. Or, yeah, an app or a computer system. But it’s a system that’s everything.”
— Don Norman, pioneer and inventor of the term “user experience”, in an interview with NNGroup
As indicated by Don Norman, User Experience is an umbrella term that covers a number of different areas. When you work with user experience, it’s crucial to have a good understanding of what those areas are so that you know what tools are available to you.
Throughout this course, you will gain a thorough understanding of the various design principles that come together to create a user’s experience when using a product or service. As you proceed, you’ll learn the value user experience design brings to a project, and what areas you must consider when you want to design great user experiences. Because user experience is an evolving term, we can’t give you a definition of ‘user experience’ to end all discussions, but we will provide you with a solid understanding of the different aspects of user experience, so it becomes clear in your mind what is involved in creating great UX designs.
If you are new to the Interaction Design Foundation, this course is a great place to start because it brings together materials from many of our other courses. This provides you with both an excellent introduction to user experience and with a preview of the courses we have to offer to help you develop your future career. After each lesson, we will introduce you to the courses you can take if a specific topic has caught your attention. That way, you’ll find it easy to continue your learning journey.