100 Things You Should Know About People: #99 — Well Practiced Skills Don't Require Conscious Attention

Person playing the violin
Guthrie Weinschenk Playing Violin

I have two grown children. The entire time they were growing up they took Suzuki method music lessons. My son studied violin, and my daughter studied piano. After attending one of my daughter’s piano recitals, I asked her what she was thinking about while she was performing the piano sonata piece (from memory, no music in front of her). Was she thinking about the dynamics of the music? When to get louder or softer? About particular notes or passages that were coming up? Speed or tempo? She looked at me in confusion. “Thinking?”, she said, “I’m not thinking about anything. I’m just watching my fingers play the song.” It was my turn to be confused. I turned to my son and said, “Is that how you play the violin in a recital? Are you thinking?” “No, of course I’m not thinking, he answered. I’m watching my fingers play the violin too.”

Muscle memory — The Suzuki method of music instruction (and perhaps other methods too, it’s the only one I’m really familiar with) requires students to intensely practice particular skills on their instrument. In a Suzuki recital students usually do not have music in front of them. All the pieces (and quite complicated pieces) are memorized. This requires that particular passages and songs be practiced over and over. A term that is used in music instruction is “muscle memory”. The piece is practiced so often, that the muscles remember how to play it on its own, without thinking involved.

Automatic execution? — If a skill is practiced so well that it is automatic, then it can be performed with a minimum of conscious attention. If it is really automatic then it almost allows multi-tasking. I say almost because multi-tasking doesn’t really exist.

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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.

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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.

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