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Kang and Yoon watched older and younger people use a DVD player and MP3 device. They were interested in whether there was a difference in completing different tasks based on age. They also looked at whether familiarity and experience with such devices would have an impact on task success.

What I found most interesting about this research is that they didn't just watch people and then check off "Yes" or "No" for task completion. They observed and categorized the types of strategies and errors that people use when confronted with a device such as a DVD player or mp3 player.

Here's what they notated about strategies during their observations:

  1. Systematic exploration – people are testing and evaluating hypotheses about how the device works and then making plans for the next action to take.
  2. Trial and error – less logical than systematic exploration, people are trying various actions without a plan
  3. Rigid exploration – repetitive actions without meaningful outcomes, people are doing the same things over and over even if they don't work; there is a lack of self reflection
  4. Encapsulation – Focused information searching without an progress in task flow; people continue to search for information even though they aren't making progress in getting the task done

And here's what they notated about errors types:

A) Consequence – They noted 3 types of error consequences:

  1. positive (action didn't give the desired result, was indeed an error, but provided information that helped the person achieve a goal)
  2. negative errors (action resulted in a dead end)
  3. neutral errors (there was no effect on progressing through the task)

B) Performance errors – They noted 3 types of performance errors:

  1. commission errors are errors where a person did something that is incorrect, for example, pushing the wrong button
  2. omission errors are errors were the person left out or missed a step or didn't press a button when they were supposed to
  3. wrong action errors are errors where the person identified what they were supposed to do but didn't do it, for example the person says out loud which button is the right one to press, but then they press the wrong button

So in addition to seeing whether there was a difference between older and younger people in terms of task completion, Kang and Yoon also compared these different strategies and error types.

Older people (ages 46-59) and younger people (ages 20-29) did not differ on task completion rate, but older people took more steps (and more time) to get the tasks done. This was not related to background knowledge or prior experience, but came from the fact that the older adults made more errors and used more rigid exploration.

Older adults:

  • failed to get meaningful hints from the actions they took
  • had more motor-control problems which meant they had more wrong action errors
  • had as much past knowledge as the younger adults, but they often didn't use their past knowledge
  • had a higher level of uncertainty about whether their actions were correct
  • felt more time pressure and less satisfaction with the interaction experience

Older adults that did have less background and experience with electronic devices adopted more trial and error strategies.

Toyota Prius


This article suggests that we have to be more sophisticated when looking at differences between older and younger adults. We can't just assume that older adults will "have a harder time" with new technology. We need to parse out what "have a harder time" means. I think the categorization of strategies and errors that these researchers used is thoughtful and helps provide a clearer view of user strategy, thought process and errors.


Kang, Neung E. and Yoon, Wan C. Age and experience-related user behavior differences in the use of complicated electronic devices. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 66, 425-447, 2008.

Message from the CEO, Dr. Eric Schaffer — The Pragmatic Ergonomist

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Reader comments

Dana Reynolds

I would think that the "more errors" is more the result of rigid exploration techniques than the exploration taking place after the errors. Otherwise the erros would indeed indicate less technical knowledge?

Christine Van Brunt

I loved this article. I have an intense interest in this subject, being one in the older category and having three adult sons who seem way more savvy with information technology. I was glad to see that at least people in my category often were able to persist and get successful consequence, even if their user experience was less satisfying. I'd love to see more articles like this and more research along these lines. Excellent!

Ann Pinion

It's interesting that Dr. Schaffer refers to "older adults" as "they" instead of "we". ;) Is it because WE older adults who have technical knowledge don't think we need simpler interfaces? That's not what the article indicates.

Dale Sauro

I am very interested in your findings. Some of it seems intuitive. However, the title suggests that differentiation of results was determined by both age and experience. It is clear that your control groups had different age ranges. However, how was their experience level "qualified" for the participants? Or – in fact, is it merely presumed that the older age group had lesser experience with the technology. As a correlation to that, I think "'older readers" could take objection to results. The essence of the findings may be more about familiarity and experience with the tools than it is about age.

Ashley Rovenski, Humana

Very interesting study. I believe that just about everything I've read about designing for "older adults" can also apply for designing for younger adults. Providing strong feedback and letting users know they have erred – and providing information about how to correct their error – is important no matter the age of the user. As far as web applications are concerned – I believe older users have an easier time with applications dealing with information they are familiar with – such as financial accounts or health insurance – than younger people. Providing meaningful feedback and education on errors – both technological errors and information errors – is helpful for both groups.

Brian Jordan

Great experiment and presentation of findings. Cheers!


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