Haptic Ethics: Part 4

Part 4: Feedback is a promise

In this installment, we’ll look at one problem of haptic ethics that is less concerned with big, multifaceted questions and more with how to make good on the little promises we make to the people that use our products. “Haptic feedback” can be defined as being a response of a system to a user’s input. In fact, the etymology of the word “response” is related to the concept of a promise.

response (n.) c. 1300, from Old French respons (Modern French réponse) and directly from Latin responsum “an answer,” noun use of neuter past participle of respondere “respond, answer to, promise in return,” from re- “back” (see re-) + spondere “to pledge” (see sponsor (n.)).

Online Etymology Dictionary

When feedback is designed and artificial, the way digital haptic feedback is, rather than an inherent property of a physical interaction, it responds – and it promises that the system has recognized what you’re trying to do. 

This idea became clear to me as I was using a mechanical button in a car. Below is a short video of the interaction. As you can see, with this interface, the feeling and sound of the button clicking does not necessarily mean the function has been activated. I clicked it once, the tailgate didn’t move, then I clicked it again, and it felt and sounded the same as the first time, but now the tailgate moved. 

To be fair to the car and its creators, I stood outside my car clicking this button repeatedly about twenty times to get this video, with the tailgate going up and down, up and down. My neighbors already think I’m weird but this sealed the deal.

Attending to my emotions while pressing this button, feeling it click, and not being sure that my intention will be acted upon, I noticed tiny bursts of fury, and and overall feeling of dread rising up, almost below my conscious awareness. It occurred to me that in some small way I was being wronged by a tactile lie. In my past work as a UX designer, I often talked about how haptics creates feelings of confidence and being in control of an interaction. That’s all true, and is supported by a significant body of research. But perhaps the inverse case is equally significant: When haptic feedback is mistakenly provided when it shouldn’t be or omitted when it should, it breeds confusion and mistrust, if only in tiny doses.

Don Norman summed this up eloquently:

Poor feedback can be worse than no feedback at all, because it is distracting, uninformative, and in many cases irritating and anxiety-provoking.

Don Norman, The Design of Everyday Things

Some readers will no doubt recognize the button press above as a classic microinteraction. A microinteraction, a concept originating from interaction designer Dan Saffer, is a self-contained moment that revolves around a single use case.

Even though we’re surrounded by microinteractions every day, we don’t usually notice them until something goes horribly wrong. But microinteractions are, despite their small size and near-invisibility, incredibly important. The difference between a product you love and a product you tolerate is often the microinteractions you have with it. 

What is a microinteraction?
Adapted from a combination of microinteractions.com and Marcelo Wanderley’s model of musical gestural control.

Microinteractions are usually represented as a flow, as shown above in the green boxes. However, taking inspiration from principles of gestural control during musical instrument performance, a topic familiar to me, we can also think about the backflow of feedback from the system to the user. There are two channels of feedback inherent to a physical interaction with a digital interface. One is the primary feedback provided by the interface itself. The other is the system’s behavior. In an ideal case, the user would not be able to distinguish between these. The job of interaction designers is to minimize the disconnect as much as possible, and haptic response is one tool that can be used for that purpose.

Little moments like button presses and menu navigation operations are what make or break a great interactive experience. When we use the phrase “haptic feedback,” let’s decide what we mean, and try to hold the entire system to a high standard of responsiveness.

As anyone knows who has worked to integrate haptics with large, complex systems, doing this well is really hard. The latency among various system components needs to be very low. Messages have to be passed among touch controllers, operating systems, haptic controllers, and other stops on the way to the human brain.

Making sure the feedback is delivered in the short time interval needed for people to correlate tactile sensations with their actions, yet at the same time being sure the entire system (including visual feedback, auditory feedback, and other actions) responds with low enough latency that the meaning of the haptic feedback is clear, is asking rather a lot. But if we can develop the verbiage to express the potential for haptic feedback to help the system make good on its promises, we may be able to recruit product designers and UX champions to our cause.

Can our industry define feedback to include standards around reliability, performance, and ultimately, user experience? Should we treat confusing haptic user experiences as stop-ship bugs every bit as serious as catastrophic software crashes? In my view, that would be a worthy goal. At Immersion, our development team has stop-ship conditions related to substandard haptic UX. We remain flexible to meet the specifics of each project, but having these conditions pre-defined serves as useful guidance for our teams and our partners.

Many hapticians believe that, as ever more hours in our days are filled with digital interaction, haptic technology will increasingly fulfill an evolutionary need to physically interact with the world. This will only work if we deliver on the promises, big and small, that we make to our users.

The articles in this series are adapted from a keynote delivered at Smart Haptics 2019. They are also posted to LinkedIn.

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