The Genesis of Happy or Not so Happy Faces

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We have all experienced the satisfaction of giving instant feedback by pressing a ‘smiley’ in a reception waiting area, or after navigating airport security. The three straightforward choices capturing our mood or experience give us a sense that our opinion matters. But have you ever considered the origins of Smiley Terminals and why you feel a degree of satisfaction when pressing one of the buttons?

The industrial revolution that began in the textile mills of England and gave rise to many work practices that would be seen today as barbaric. However, there were enlightened individuals such as Robert Owen (1771-1858). Rather than overseeing a regime of brutal physical punishment to ensure productivity, Owen enabled his fellow factory owners to employ a “silent monitor”. Factory workers were all given a four-sided piece of wood that hung by their place of work. Each of the four sides was painted in a different colour to represent the quality of a worker’s output.


The supervisor would give ‘feedback’ on the workers daily performance by displaying a different colour face of the wooden monitor. ‘Bad’ behaviour was represented by the colour black; ‘indifferent’ was represented by blue; ‘good’ by yellow; and ‘excellent’ by white. Owen congratulated himself: “It was gratifying to observe the new spirit created by these silent monitors”. He attributed much of his success in terms of factory productivity and worker satisfaction to the quaint little device. Over 200 years ago this method of motivating and providing visual feedback was extraordinary and ahead of its time, but clearly, the journey to positive management techniques had begun.


We accelerate through time passing over giants of management theory such as Taylor, Gilbreth, and Follett to Elton Mayo who conducted a series experiments at the Hawthorne Works in Cicero, Illinois, on employees work patterns and environment. The experiments sought to investigate the effects of physical conditions on productivity. Mayo observed the human instinct of association and the beneficial effect that employees experience when a company demonstrates concern for its employees. The simple smiley terminals provide an outlet for individuals to (anonymously) share their experience. This is to satisfy the instinct of being associated with fellow customers in the combined hope that the service provider will listen to a collective. In providing the terminal, at point of service, it also demonstrates to the customers that the company is concerned about consumer experience, in the same way as those Hawthorne factory workers.


We can demonstrate a golden thread from the early notions of the pioneer Owen to the Happy or Not-so-happy terminals; giving feedback is truly a gift, in our DNA and we find instant gratification in it.


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