Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Calming computer messages boost users' problem-solving performance

Are your learners frustrated with computer-based training and online learning? Software glitches, slow-loading Webpages, and other technical issues can make learners wish for a traditional classroom. Of course you want to fix the technical issues as quickly as possible, but in the meantime the computer could help soothe your learners--and might get them to perform better on computer-based or online assessments.

A study performed at the University of Tampere in Finland found that when computer users who experienced software delays were given positive messages via the computer's speech synthesizer, the users not only smiled more but also did better on problem-solving exercises they were then given. (The study was written about in the April 2004 issue of Interacting with Computers and reported in MIT's Technology Review.)

Users were asked to solve a color puzzle using a mouse, and the computer choreographed periodic delays in the mouse movements. Users received positive messages such as "The problem will soon be happily over" (rough translation from Finnish), negative messages such as "This is annoying," or no message at all. When users received positive messages, their performance was better than with negative or no messages. It's unclear whether the results would've been the same if the messages were given via text rather than audio.

Some Websites do already give users reassuring messages when a page is loading slowly--this doesn't take much sophisticated technical expertise beyond what is needed to design a page. It doesn't seem much harder to program a virtual classroom program, for instance, to provide a reassuring message if it suddenly quits or boots a user out for no apparent reason.

In fact, why not make all computer messages positive and reassuring, so that people can perform better on all their tasks? "This application has unexpectedly quit" could turn into "We know software glitches are frustrating and we regret that one just happened. But it will be okay. Restart the application and everything should work just fine."

Somehow I don't see Microsoft embracing this type of change.

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