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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