The Value of Feedback at Multiple Levels

One of the key tactics to support user competence through technology is providing feedback on performance. Ideally, the feedback does a few things:

  • Acknowledges success or improvement in order to build self-efficacy
  • Provides clues or instruction on how to improve
  • Arrives in a timely fashion so people have a chance to actually use the feedback

You can think about feedback at a couple of different levels. There’s immediate feedback that’s tied directly to a person’s granular behaviors. An example would be an error message when a person selects an inadequate password (which, if it’s a good error message, also provides feedback on what the user should change to make the password appropriate). I call this level of feedback “proximal.”

My leaderboard for one of my favorite running routes
My leaderboard for one of my favorite running routes

A second level of feedback is what I like to call “distal.” This is the 10,000 foot view of the user’s performance within an ecosystem. How is the user performing over time? Examples of distal feedback include point totals or leveling up over time. On the beer app Untappd, distal feedback takes the form of badges that show how frequently and broadly a person drinks from various beer categories (I’m most accomplished in the IPA category).

I’ve been running for maybe 5 years now, and from the beginning I’ve tracked all of my running workouts in Map My Run. I continue to find this tracking a source of motivation. It supports a sense of competence through both proximal and distal feedback. On the proximal level, I can see my pace for every run I do–and my best performances on my common routes. At the distal level, I can see my cumulative running totals over time. At times when I am not my fastest or fittest (meaning my proximal feedback is disappointing), the distal feedback can help keep me going by reminding me how far I’ve gone (more than roundtrip from Boston to Phoenix!). I also like comparing the same month year over year, which generally shows gains in fitness.

Lately the distal feedback has been really important to me, since I have been quite a bit slower since the marathon. Immediately following the marathon, I was just wiped out and my lead legs weren’t going to carry me very fast. Plus, I very predictably fell into the marathon weight gain trap, so I’ve been asking my poor tired legs to push extra bulk around. I’m looking forward to getting back to a place where my proximal feedback gets me jazzed too.

What kind of feedback do your users get when they interact with your tech product? How could you boost both your proximal and distal feedback mechanisms?

An overview of the feedback for my runs in May 2014
An overview of the feedback for my runs in May 2014

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