100 Things You Should Know About People: #77 — Not All Mistakes Are Bad

Error message that says "This error should not occur"You buy a new digital camera and you start learning how to use it. Chances are that in the first few days of using it you will make a lot of mistakes –press the wrong buttons, forget where things are in the menus, and so on. We tend to think that mistakes are bad and should be avoided. Not necessarily, says Van Der Linden who conducted research on exploration strategies that people use when learning how to use computers and electronic devices.

Consequences are not always negative — Van Der Linden’s idea is that errors have consequences, but, contrary to what most people think, not all of the consequences are negative. Although it’s possible, and even likely, that making an error has a negative consequence, it’s also likely that the error has a positive or a neutral outcome.

Positive consequences — Errors with a positive consequence are actions that do not give the desired result, but provide the user with information that helps them achieve their overall goal. For example, let’s say that you have designed a new tablet device to compete with the iPad. You’ve got an early prototype of the device, and you put it in the hands of potential buyers to see how usable the device is. The person moves the slider bar that he thinks is the volume control, but instead the screen gets brighter. He’s chosen the brightness slider, rather than the volume slider. It’s a mistake, but now he knows how to make the screen brighter. If that’s a feature that he also needs to learn in order to accomplish the task of watching a video (and assuming he does eventually find the volume slider), then we could say that the error had a positive consequence.

Negative consequences — Errors with a negative consequence are those that result in a dead end, undo a positive consequence, send people back to a starting point, or result in action that cannot be reversed. For example, your potential customer is now trying to move a file from one folder to another, but he misunderstands the meaning of the button choices and he deletes the file instead. That’s an error that has negative consequences.

Neutral consequences — Errors with a neutral consequence are errors that don’t affect task completion at all. For example, the potential buyer tries to select a menu option that is not available. He’s made an error, but it the consequence isn’t positive or negative – it’s neutral.

What do you think? Is it useful to think about errors this way?

For those of you who like to read the research:

van der Linden, Dimitri, Sonnentag, S. Frese, M. & van Dyck, C. (2001). Exploration strategies, error consequences, and performance when learning a complex computer task. Behaviour and Information Technology, 20, 189-198.



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