UX principles in action: Feedback systems and Ford SYNC

UX principles in action: Feedback systems and Ford SYNC

The importance of providing system feedback

Providing the user feedback during an action is one of the most basic user experience principles that must be considered when designing systems.  Feedback can come in a variety of forms: a confirmation message upon completion of an action, an error message if something goes wrong, a progress indicator while the system is performing an action, or other visual techniques that indicate a system’s state.  Providing feedback in a design helps to minimize errors and gives users confidence while performing tasks or actions.

Ford SYNC and its lack of feedback during system updates

I recently installed an update to the SYNC system on my 2011 Ford Fusion, and through the process, Ford (and Microsoft, who develops SYNC) has given me a great example of what not to do when designing feedback systems in applications.  Overall, SYNC is great, and I have few complaints about it. If you are unfamiliar with the system, SYNC is an in-car connectivity system that allows you to make hands-free calls and control your music and other functions with simple voice commands.  It’s a joy to use and is probably the best voice recognition system I’ve ever used.  However, the system is terrible at providing the user feedback about what it’s doing when it’s performing system processes. I should note here that I’m using a vehicle without a built-in navigation system, so it’s possible this experience is limited to cars without the nav, though it may also apply across the board.

Here’s what the process looked like to install a SYNC system update:

  • Download the update to a USB dive on a computer
    This was relatively simple enough, with clear step-by step instructions and a visual indicator on the website showing installation progress.  The indicator helped me know how long it would take to complete the process and a know when it was complete.
  • Receive instructions on how to install the update in your car
    Here’s where it starts getting messy.  A link with full instructions is provided, along with the following statement:

“Follow your printed out instructions exactly with your vehicle running. Approximately 60 seconds after you begin the installation, you will hear an “Installation Complete” message. DO NOT REMOVE your USB drive or turn off your vehicle. You must wait an additional 4-18 minutes until you hear a second “Installation Complete” message before you can remove your USB drive.”

Ok, so, even though it will give me a message saying it’s complete, it’s really not, and if I didn’t read this little note about the process, it makes it sound like I could cause some form of irreversible damage. Great.

  • Install the update in the car
    Beginning the installation is relatively straight forward, and the system displays an “Installing application…” message on the screen during the initial portion of the install.  However, as warned above, upon completion the SYNC voice says “Installation complete. The system will now reboot. Please wait a few moments before using the system.”  During this reboot process, there’s no visual indicator of what’s happening. The system switches back to playing the radio, and you’re stuck wondering how long you have to wait until the process is actually complete.  Since the message told me to wait before using “the system” I wasn’t sure if I could do anything at all, so I just sat there hoping something would happen. The system also never tells you what to expect when the process completes, so you’re left hanging with no idea what’s going on.After about 5 minutes, the voice came back and said “Installation complete” a second time, which is confusing since the system already told me the install completed, I was just waiting for it to finish rebooting.  A “Reboot completed. You may now unplug the USB drive and insert your media device” type message would be much clearer.  I was left wondering if the process was really done, and hesitant to do anything.
  • Plug in your media device
    After installing the update,  I plugged my iPod into the USB port and tried initiating a voice command. The system prompts me to “say a command”, but after I asked it to play a song, the SYNC voice responded by telling me the system was still indexing the music on my device, and I had to wait until that process was completed.  However, again, there’s no indicator of how long this process takes.  The only way to check if it’s done is to keep trying voice commands.  After indexing is complete, the system also has to “build voice commands” before it can recognize your voice.  Since these two actions have to happen every time you update the music on your device, some sort of visual indicator of their progress would reduce user frustration and errors in trying to use the system before it is ready.

How can SYNC provide better system feedback?

Ford and Microsoft could fix their SYNC feedback problems by taking very simple measures:

  • Provide messaging on the dashboard screen indicating that a system action is taking place.  A progress indicator would be even better.
  • Give feedback before a user tries to complete an action, to prevent the error rather than to indicate that one was already made.
  • Provide just enough feedback to indicate system progress without causing unnecessary complexity or confusion during the process.

Have you seen any other examples of applications providing poor system feedback or examples of system feedback used well? If so, share them in the comments below.

Catriona Shedd

I am a User Experience Designer with a passion for making people’s lives better through design. I have helped over a dozen organizations obtain a competitive advantage by delivering great user experiences across desktop, mobile, tablet and other channels.

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  • Stacia Marlett

    Nice points about providing feedback. I’ve never seen SYNC in action, but I’m surprised by a few things you casually mentioned:

    1) I would expect a system like SYNC to have wireless or 3G capabilities. Heck, even a proprietary communication service like OnStar. I think the USB thing is a turn-off. How do you know when an update is available?

    2) Do you have to plug in a media device in order for the voice recognition to work? Is the device charging while it’s plugged in?

    3) Is SYNC adding music to your iPod? “Since these two actions have to happen every time you update the music on your device…” makes me wonder.

  • Anonymous

    1) You have to go to the SYNC website to find out when updates are available. From what I can tell so far, there’s no way of being notified. Definitely a big flaw.  If you don’t want to deal with using a USB stick to install the updates you can go to a dealer, but it would be nice if you could download these updates wirelessly.

    2) Yes, media devices have to be plugged in via USB or line in for voice recognition to work.  You can give phone commands without plugging in the phone, though.  You can stream music via bluetooth, but I don’t think voice commands work if you do that.  But on the plus side, yes the device charges when it’s plugged in.

    3) SYNC doesn’t add music to your iPod. I meant that if you add music to your device (through iTunes, for example) that every time you plug it back into the car, it has to re-index and regenerate voice commands. Unless you’re adding a lot of new music in-between plugging it in, it really only takes less than a minute to index, so it’s not too bad.  It would still be nice to know what it’s doing while it’s processing, though.

  • Anonymous

    I should point out, though, that SYNC does sort of have a communication system like OnStar.  SYNC has 911 assist, which automatically calls 911 in the event of a crash, and you can access “services” which uses a phone call to push you voice directions, business search info, and traffic.  It’s a pretty neat system all-in-all, it just has its quirks.

  • Stacia Marlett

    Oh…I think I just got the voice command/media device connection necessisity: you can tell it what song or album to play, right? If you only have an iPod plugged in, and not your Android phone, for instance, does “call Stacia” work as a voice command?

    Sorry, I’m totally leading this thread down an unrelated-to-feedback way. 

  • Anonymous

    Yep, you can speak the song/album/artist/playlist names to have it pull up a specific thing.  You can do any phone commands like “call Stacia” whether or not your iPod is plugged in.  Basically to initiate a command you tap the SYNC button on the steering wheel, then say “Phone” then “call Stacia”, or “USB” then “play artist The Beatles” or whatever. It controls the phone through bluetooth and your iPod through the USB connection.