a little madness

A man needs a little madness, or else he never dares cut the rope and be free -Nikos Kazantzakis

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On Fast Feedback

A major focus of agile development is fast feedback – of many kinds. As this idea is taken to its extreme, it is worthwhile asking if feedback can be too fast. That is, is there a point at which shrinking the feedback loop becomes counterproductive?

The benefit of feedback is knowing if you are heading in the right direction. The faster the feedback, the less time you spend heading towards dead ends. So the benefit increases as feedback gets faster. But what of the cost? It is useful to split the cost into two categories:

  1. Setup cost: how hard is it to create the system to produce the feedback? Is it more difficult to create faster feedback?
  2. Ongoing cost: what does it cost to receive the feedback? Do you pay this every time?

Setup cost is not usually a big issue except in extreme cases, as it can be paid off over time. More interesting is the ongoing cost of receiving and processing feedback. Naturally receiving, understanding and acting on feedback takes time. The important part is distinguishing when this time is productive versus wasted. Processing feedback can be wasteful in various ways:

  1. False alarms: if the feedback is incorrect, at best it is an irritation. At worst, significant time is wasted chasing a wild goose.
  2. Distraction: if feedback arrives when you are in the middle of something, it can interrupt your flow. Even if the feedback is useful, its benefit can be outweighed by the cost of losing your train of thought.
  3. Repetition: if feedback tells you nothing new, then it has no benefit. Any time spent acknowledging it is wasted.

How do these problems relate to the speed of feedback? The cost of false alarms is roughly inversely proportional to the length of the feedback cycle. As the relationship is linear, false alarms are not compounded by making feedback faster. In any case, accuracy of feedback is always paramount: false alarms must be eliminated.

More interesting is the relationship between feedback speed and the other two potential problems: distraction and repetition. In both these cases, shrinking the feedback cycle may produce a disproportionate increase in the occurrence of problems. Thus, when shrinking the feedback cycle, care must be taken to address both of these areas.

Distraction can be addressed in multiple ways. Firstly, receipt of feedback should be optional. Users must be able to pause the feedback mechanism (or possibly switch it off altogether). Then when a user needs to for deep thought, they can ensure that they are not interrupted. Secondly, the method of feedback needs to be in keeping with both the importance and frequency of the message to convey. For example, an emergency that requires immediate attention may use a bold and hard to ignore mechanism, whereas a small status update should be less intrusive. Continuous feedback must be modeless — as an example think of the real time spell-checking functionality in many word processors. Lastly, feedback should be categorised to allow smart filtering. Different users often require different levels of feedback — what is important for some is a trivial detail to others.

Repetition is usually simpler to address: feedback can be suppressed when there is no change. Note that in some cases a change for one user may not represent a change for another user. Thus, as above, filtering that is based on individual users may be necessary.

Conclusion

The value of feedback, and indeed fast feedback, is unquestioned. Taking this principle to the extreme, it follows that faster feedback is better. I feel this is true provided that the crucial issues of distraction and repetition are addressed.

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