100 Things You Should Know About People #79 — People of Different Ages Have Different Error Strategies

Young man taking a picture with a smart phone camera

Let’s say you study two people using a smartphone that has an advanced still and video camera. One is 22 years old, and the other is 47 years old. Neither of them has used this smartphone/camera before. You give them a set of tasks to do. Will there be a difference between them? Will they both be able to complete the tasks? Will they make the same mistakes? Neung Kang and Wan Yoon (2008) conducted a research study to look at the types of errors both young and older (not very old, but older) adults make when learning how to use new technologies. In their study they identified and tracked different error strategies:

Systematic exploration — When people use  systematic exploration, this means that when they make a mistake they stop and think about what procedures they are going to use to correct the error. For example, let’s say that a user is trying to figure out how to email a picture with the smartphone/camera. She tried one menu and that didn’t work, so now she sets out to see what each item in the menu system does for the camera part of the device. She starts at the first item in the first menu and works her way through all the choices in the part of the product controls having to do with the camera. She is systematically exploring.

Trial and error — In contrast to systematic exploration, trial and error means that the person is randomly trying out different actions, menus, icons and controls

Rigid exploration — If someone does the same action over and over, even though it does not solve the error, that is called a rigid exploration. For example, the person is trying to send a picture via a text message, presses a button and gets an error. She then chooses the picture again, and presses the button again. She keeps repeating this combination of actions, even though it doesn’t work.

Age and Expertise — Here is what Kang and Yoon found in their study:

There was no difference in completion rates for the tasks on the devices due to age, but the older (40-50 year olds) used different strategies than the younger (in their 20s) adults.

  • Older adults took more steps to get the tasks completed, mainly because they made more errors as they went along, and they tended to use more rigid exploration strategies more than younger adults.
  • Older adults often failed to receive meaningful hints from their actions and therefore made less progress toward the task goal.
  • Older adults showed more motor-control problems.
  • Older adults didn’t use their past knowledge as much as younger adults.
  • Older adults had a higher level of uncertainty about whether their actions were correct. They felt more time pressure and less satisfaction.
  • Older adults adopted more trial and error strategies than younger adults, but analysis of the data showed this was not due to age, but due to lack of background and experience with the type of device.

What do you think? What is more important in terms of errors, age or experience with that type of device?

Here’s the research:

Kang, Neung E., & Yoon, W.C. (2008). Age- and experience-related user behavior differences in the use of complicated electronic devices. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 66, 425–437.


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3 Replies to “100 Things You Should Know About People #79 — People of Different Ages Have Different Error Strategies”

  1. Interesting study, but I’d rather see it with something that both cohorts are unfamiliar with. Obviously, the younger group would be more comfortable with something techy. But how about something like a sewing machine? a flight simulator?

  2. I have noticed something like this, offhand.
    Pretty much every digital watch has the same basic interface of two buttons and a crown/stem. I find that people who cannot use or adjust the features of their watch are mystified by the buttons. When they push a button, the date briefly appears, then disappears. Push the other button and the alarm icon appears/disappears. Pull the crown and turn the stem, and you might be able to adjust the time.
    I know that accessing other features or adjustments requires changing the watch’s ‘mode’ by pressing and holding one of the buttons. Changing values is done by pressing the other button, and going to other features is done by pressing the first button again. It’s the same for every digital watch.
    I have a model of how a digital watch’s features and adjustments are accessed, and all watches seem to follow this model in a general sense. The button press order may be different, but still it’s a matter of change mode, change value, change mode.
    With application user interfaces, it’s the same. I have a model that is based on certain actions to expose different functions (click/hold, right-click, left-click, menu, etc) and I can explore an interface by using a few standard actions. Because of this, I can quickly familiarize myself with many ‘advanced’ features of an application through a systematic exploration.
    Strangely, to me, many people are not aware of this model, and approach an app and its UI as though it were completely new, and must learn it from scratch.
    Now, the big idea: I am mystified by the “ribbon” interface. It doesn’t really fit my model very well, and so I have a hard time with it. My thinking, while appropriate for UI schemes of the 90’s, doesn’t work as well for 21st century applications, and so I need to make my mind flexible in a new way to formulate a new UI model. This has been harder for me, in my 50s, than it was when I was younger.

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