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The Abstract

Are People Inherently Good or Bad at Learning New Tech? Your Opinion Matters

Photo credit: Kojach. Image retrieved via Flickr, and shared under a Creative Commons license. Click for more information.

If you think people are inherently good or bad at learning how to use new technology, odds are good that it’s harder for you to learn how to use new technology. Those are the findings of a recent psychology study from NC State University – and it’s something tech companies may want to consider when testing out new products.

“We wanted to determine whether a person’s mindset about technology influenced their ability to navigate technological tasks,” says Lawton Pybus, a graduate student at NC State and lead author of a paper on the work. “Basically, are individuals who think people are inherently good or bad at technology better or worse than individuals who think people are adaptable?”

To explore this issue, Pybus and his advisor, Doug Gillan, did a study involving 152 adults. Each study participant was asked three questions to determine whether he or she had a “fixed” or “growth” mindset about people’s general ability to learn or use new technology. Each participant was then asked to perform a series of tasks on unfamiliar websites.

“We found that 15 percent of participants had a fixed mindset regarding tech use, and that those with a fixed mindset performed worse at the tech-oriented tasks,” Pybus says. “It took them longer to perform the tasks, took more clicks to accomplish the tasks, and they were less likely to perform the tasks accurately.”

Even accounting for age, sex, and education, mindset was the only variable that significantly predicted performance on the tasks.

“But while we only found 15 percent of study participants had a fixed mindset in regard to technology, the number in the general population is likely much higher,” says Gillan, co-author of the paper and head of the psychology department at NC State. “After all, these participants are people who were willing and able to take an online test in the first place. And previous studies have found that there tends to be a 50/50 split in regard to fixed versus growth mindsets in other areas, such as intelligence and athletics.”

The recent study has applications in areas such as usability testing, in which researchers evaluate how easily people can use new technologies.

“One area we’re interested in exploring is whether we should incorporate this sort of mindset evaluation into usability testing, to control for that sort of potential bias on the tests,” Gillan says.

Basically, companies would want to know whether poor product reviews on usability tests are due to having a lot of test participants with fixed mindsets about using new technologies.

“On a more fundamental level, we’re also curious about whether having a fixed mindset about learning new technologies affects an individual’s willingness to use new technologies. That’s something we’re evaluating now,” Pybus says.

“We also want to know what can be done to move people from one mindset to another,” Gillan says. “We’ll keep you posted.”

The paper, “Implicit Theories of Technology: Identification and Implications for Performance,” was presented at the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society’s annual meeting in Los Angeles late last month.

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  1. I think a very significant part of difficulty in learning and using new technology is due to one very pervasive design flaw: the failure to consider the fact that a significant portion of the population cannot see well enough to read the labelling on the device. Why do we have the stereotype of Grandma not being able to use the remote? It’s because the remote has approximately 50 buttons on it, most of which are labelled in a font size that can’t be read by people over the age of 45 unless they have their reading glasses on -in a well-lit room — and sometimes not even then.

    Poor product design and poor documentation go hand in hand in creating this problem The television has a number of small buttons on it that enable the user to access a broad array of functions. But if you can’t read the labels on the buttons, they’re not very useful. If the instruction manual tells you to “Press the TV/Video button”, how useful is that instruction if you can’t tell which of the two dozen small buttons it is? And, chances are, this instruction came in a 3″ x 5″ instruction booklet with the instructions printed in 6 languages, but with the illustrations so small that they can’t be used for guidance to help identify which button is which. (Pro Tip: Go online, and find a pdf version of the instruction booklet, which you can then magnify by 300 – 500%, so you can then teach yourself that it’s the first button to the left of the row of double buttons).

    This problem is exacerbated by design trends that lean toward making products smaller and with sleeker, cleaner appearance unmarred by clearly labelled controls. And, while the sleek clean appliance design with the hidden control buttons might be acceptable in your home, where you can memorize the location of the controls, it is a horrible choice for a hotel, where users are faced with an unfamiliar device with no apparent ability to turn it on or off.

    A similar problem exists in software products that rely heavily on toolbar icons. Many times after a software upgrade when I have had to search to find the location of a familiar function under the new format. Upon accessing the loosely named “Help” feature, I have been faced with instructions like “Click on the Formatting icon and then…..” If the instructions do not then provide an illustration of what that icon looks like, (or if images are not feasible, at least a description of what the icon looks like), then it is woefully inadequate documentation. It is unreasonable to assume that new users will be able to instantly intuit what the meaning of a tiny icon is. While I regularly use the “Update database” button on my database software, I’m still sort of mystified as to why they chose to make it look like a blue barrel.

    Since I was born at the tail end of the baby boom generation, I had hoped that my predecessors would have made use of their large population and market power to iron out this obvious problem, but that hasn’t occurred. Miniaturization continues, in products, controls, and documentation without noticing that the design has a gaping flaw for a huge percentage of potential users. Stop assuming that older users are Luddites or have difficulty learning new technologies and provide them with products that are visible enough to be useful for people of all ages.

    Now get off my lawn! And improve your product design, dammit!

  2. Interesting work.
    I’ve often wondered, when reading online reviews of new tech devices, if the reviewers were prone to having trouble adapting to something new.
    Very often the reviews can cover the spectrum.

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