5Paradox of the Active
John M. Carroll and
Mary Beth Rosson
One of the most sweeping changes ever in the ecology of human cognition may be taking
place today. People are beginning to learn and use very powerful and sophisticated
information processing technology as a matter of daily life. From the perspective of human
history, this could be a transitional point dividing a period when machines merely helped us
do things from a period when machines will seriously help us think about things. But if
this is so, we are indeed still very much within the transition. For most people, computers
have more possibility than they have real practical utility.
In this chapter we discuss two empirical phenomena of computer use: (1) people have
considerable trouble learning to use computers (e.g., Mack, Lewis and Carroll, 1983;
Mantei and Haskell, 1983), and (2) their skill tends to asymptote at relative mediocrity
(Nielsen, Mack, Bergendorff, and Grischkowsky, 1986; Pope, 1985; Rosson, 1983).
These phenomena could be viewed as being due merely to “bad” design in current systems.
We argue that they are in part more fundamental than this, deriving from conflicting
motivational and cognitive strategies. Accordingly, (1) and (2) are best viewed not as
design problems to be solved, but as true paradoxes that necessitate programmatic tradeoff
A motivational paradox arises in the “production bias” people bring to the task of
learning and using computing equipment. Their paramount goal is throughput. This is a
desirable state of affairs in that it gives users a focus for their activity with a system, and it
increases their likelihood of receiving concrete reinforcement from their work. But on the
other hand, it reduces their motivation to spend any time just learning about the system, so
that when situations appear that could be more effectively handled by new procedures, they
are likely to stick with the procedures they already know, regardless of their efficacy.
A second, cognitive paradox devolves from the “assimilation bias”: people apply what
they already know to interpret new situations. This bias can be helpful, when there are
useful similarities between the new and old information (as when a person learns to use a
word processor taking it to be a super typewriter or an electronic desktop). But irrelevant
and misleading similarities between new and old information can also blind learners to what
they are actually seeing and doing, leading them to draw erroneous comparisons and
conclusions, or preventing them from recognizing possibilities for new function.
It is our view that these cognitive and motivational conflicts are mutually reinforcing,
thus exaggerating the effect either problem might separately have on early and longterm
learning. These paradoxes are not defects in human learning to be remediated. They are
fundamental properties of learning. If learning were not at least this complex, then
1This chapter was published in Interfacing Thought: Cognitive Aspects of Human-Computer Interaction,
edited by John M. Carroll, Cambridge, MA, MIT Press, pp. 80-111. We are grateful to John Whiteside and
Phillis Reisner for critiquing an earlier version of this chapter. We also received helpful comments from
our lab’s reading group (John Black, Rich Catrambone, Bob Mack, Jean McKendree, and John Richards)
Paradox of the Active User 2
designing learning environments would be a trivial design problem (Thomas and Carroll,
1979). Our discussion is based on studies of the learning and routine use of word
processing systems, and we speculate on potential programmatic tradeoff solutions to the
paradoxes in this domain and generally.
2 The Active User
A colorful, and apt, image of the world of the new user of a computer system is found in
the often quoted phrase of William James: “a bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion.” People in this
situation see many things going on, but they do not know which of these are relevant to
their current concerns. Indeed, they do not know if their current concerns are the
appropriate concerns for them to have. The learner reads something in the manual; sees
something on the display; and must try to connect the two, to integrate, to interpret. It
would be unsurprising to find that people in such a situation suffer conceptual—or even
physical—paralysis. They have so little basis on which to act.
And yet people do act. Indeed, the typical pattern we have observed is that people
simply strike out into the unknown. If the rich and diverse sources of available information
cannot be interpreted, then some of these will be ignored. If something can be interpreted
(no matter how specious the basis for this interpretation), then it will be interpreted. Ad
hoc theories are hastily assembled out of these odds and ends of partially relevant and
partially extraneous generalization. And these “theories” are used for further prediction.
Whatever initial confusions get into such a process, it is easy to see that they are at the
mercy of a diverging feedback loop: things quite often get worse before they get better.
Designers of computer systems and training technology surely would have liked things
to have been different. The easiest way to teach someone something is, after all, to tell
them directly. However, what we see in the learning-to-use-a-computer situation is that
people are so busy trying things out, thinking things through, and trying to relate what they
already know (or believe they know) to what is going on that they often do not notice the
small voice of structured instruction crying out to them from behind the manual and the
A similar picture appears in considering the more experienced users of computer
systems. Here, the best characterization is not one of striking out into the unknown.
Rather, it is one of relying on the known to get things accomplished. Users tend to make
use of the functions they know about to get a result, regardless of the efficacy of the
method entrained. Designers of reference and help systems count on users to recognize
opportunities for new methods, and to search out the information needed to implement
them. Instead, users often figure out how to use what they already know to achieve new
goals. They have little desire to explore new function, or to search out information, if they
can use methods they are already comfortable with to achieve the same goal.
What is wrong? We would argue that the learning practices people adopt here are
typical, and in many situations adaptive (Scribner, 1984). The problem in this particular
learning situation is that learners are innocent in the extreme. Each feature of a computer
system may indeed have a sensible design rationale from the viewpoint of the systems'
engineer, but this rationale is frequently far beyond the grasp of the new user, or indeed
even a user familiar with the basic function of the system. “Word processor,”: so far as we
know, is not a natural concept. People who do not know about word processors have
little, possibly nothing, to refer to in trying to actively learn to use such things. Innocence
turns reasonable learning strategies into learning problems (Carroll and Mack, 1984).
Paradox of the Active User 3
3 The Production Paradox
It is good to want to get something done. One would only ever want to learn to use a new
tool if one wanted first to get something done. But wanting to get something done can also
be a problem, if one lacks the prerequisites: you have to learn to do in order to do. Merely
wanting to use a new tool may be necessary but it is not sufficient.
3.1 Problems for New Users
Training and reference materials often are designed under the assumption that people who
need to learn something will be willing to read about it, to practice skills in a sensibly
structured sequence of exercises, and finally to assemble these conceptual and skill
components into a mature competence and understanding. Further, it is assumed that when
people seek to learn more about a domain they will again be willing to engage in these
activities to develop and refine their expertise. But these assumptions are empirically
unsound. Learners at every level of experience try to avoid reading. In structured practice,
they often accidentally or deliberately get off track and end up in lengthy and complex
tangles of error recovery or self-initiated exploration. (For details, see Carroll and Mazur,
1985; Mack, Lewis, and Carroll, 1983).
New users are not ‘blank slates’ for training designers to write upon. Indeed, the
most accurate way to think about new users is as experts in other, non-computer domains.
Secretaries trying to learn to use a word processor are not starting from ground zero in any
relevant sense. They are experts at routine office tasks. (Unfortunately, but in all
likelihood, they are far more expert than the designers of their word processing system!)
The same point can be made for any other class of new users as they come to learn an
application system designed to be a tool for them in their work. When a domain expert
tries to use a tool designed specifically to support his or her work activities, the orientation
is to do real work, not to read descriptions and instructions, or to practice step-by-step
New users tend to jump right in when introduced to application systems. If an
operation is referred to in their training materials, they want to try it out at once. Rote
descriptions and practice are resisted, and even when complied with, prove difficult to
follow and assimilate. In a training system studied in Carroll and Mazur (1985), there is a
list of icons in the training guide identifying the applications available, but users are not
allowed to try the applications represented. After an hour or so of training, one learner
complained: “I’m getting impatient. I want to do something, not learn to do everything.”
Half an hour later, he exclaimed: “I could have typed 3000 words by now!” Users
become very frustrated when training "introduces" them to function but expects them to
refrain from using it to perform a real task. Another learner balked when instructed by an
on-line tutorial to read a passage but not do anything, exclaiming “I’m tempted to do it
anyway and then see if I can get out.”
Often, users respond to these desires to try things out, to get things done. But
jumping the gun like this, and relying on exploratory learning strategies instead of the step-
by-step rote structure of a manual or on-line tutorial, can be costly. Carroll and Mazur
(1985) described a learner who explored a Wastebasket function by throwing away one and
then another of the applications available on the system. This hypothesis testing approach
did in fact enable her to correctly induce the Wastebasket operation, but at a fairly high
price: she could not restore these applications. In other cases, the heuristic reasoning
strategies users bring to bear do not even produce the correct conclusions. Another learner
began drawing conclusions about work diskettes as soon as he saw the term: “Work
diskette. Does that mean it won't work without a work diskette?” Later, he got an error
message—“Work Diskette needs recovery; Use recovery task.”—and confidently
Paradox of the Active User 4
concluded that he had initially placed the diskette in the wrong slot of the disk
drive—which was a totally irrelevant consideration in this case. Loosely reasoned
hypotheses are of course frequently wrong, yet they are attractive to users in that they allow
rapid (albeit reckless), learner-directed progress on real tasks.
3.2 Problems for Experienced Users
For more experienced users, the Production Paradox is more subtle. It is not merely a
matter of an urgent and yet premature need to produce, but rather a matter of balancing
investment of time in learning versus throughput. The issue is one of whether it is worth
the time to suspend throughput via already-learned, but perhaps inefficient methods, to
engage in learning, which only in the long run might facilitate greater throughput.
Most computer systems and their reference libraries are designed with an inherently
rational view of users in mind. They provide a range of function from basic to advanced,
under the assumption that with experience, users will naturally acquire the procedural
knowledge that most effectively fulfills their needs. Indeed, much of the early work in
system evaluation has been guided by this assumption—that the asymptotic level of
behavior is one relatively free of errors and inefficient strategies (e.g., Card, Moran and
Newell, 1980; 1983). However, this assumption is called into question by recent work
examining routine text editor use (Rosson, 1984a, 1984b).
In this work, users were both surveyed about their use of a text editor and monitored
during their daily use of the system. The users varied in their experience with the editor, as
well as in their experience with other editing systems, and in their job type. This editor
provides a number of advanced functions for streamlining use, and one of the issues of
interest was the extent to which such function is picked up by experienced users.
In general, we found that many users were not discovering and using function which
could have made their jobs easier. A good example comes in the analysis of macro use;
macros are stored programs which allow for extensions and modifications of the basic
editor function. Many macros are available on a public disk, and one thing we examined
was the usage of this “extra” function. We discovered that a large number of users had not
incorporated any of the macros into their daily activities; this was true despite the fact that
the most popular macros were ones providing very basic extensions to general editing
functions, not routines serving special-purpose functions that could be viewed as
appropriate only for sophisticated users. Thus, although there appeared to be a general
need for this added function (analysis indicated that use of the macros was indeed
associated with more rapid editing activity), the less sophisticated users (in this case, these
were secretarial and administrative users) made virtually no use of these public macros.
We speculated that this was due to the number of steps required to find out about and use
the extra function, steps that might well seem too much trouble to a user focussed on
generating end products.
Additional evidence that users fail to become experts is the appearance of “pockets of
expertise” in user populations (Rosson, Gould and Grischkowsky, 1982; Draper, 1984):
instead of becoming generalized experts themselves, users learn a basic set of knowledge,
presumably relying on local experts to help them out when special needs arise. In some
situations, this sociological phenomenon may work out nicely—where a work situation is
structured such that specific users are assigned topics to master, and other users are made
aware of when and whom to consult. However, in the general case, its success hinges on
users' willingness to take the time to find and consult an appropriate expert when a
particular need arises rather than making do with their more primitive skills.
Unfortunately, we have no reason to believe that users will take the time and effort to find
and consult human experts any more than they would a reference manual.
Paradox of the Active User 5
4 Approaches to the Production Paradox
As we stated in our introductory remarks, we do not see the Production Paradox as a just a
problem to be solved tout court.. We do see several approaches to the paradox, but each is
limited; indeed the three approaches we describe below are actually inconsistent with one
another if taken to logical conclusions.
One approach is to ease the focus on tangible end products for users. While it may be
natural for users of computing equipment to adopt an end-product motivational orientation,
this may not be inevitably monolithic. Other motivational sets may be suggested or
induced. A second approach is to minimize the consequences of an end-product focus by
reducing the motivation necessary for learning. Learning that requires less motivation of
the user might occur successfully even for users focussed principally on generating end
products. As a third approach, we can try to design computing systems to better support
the end-product focus: we can give the people what they want.
4.1 Attacking the End-Product Focus
At an extreme, the end-product focus can have the effect of subjugating intrinsic sources of
reward (achievement, satisfaction of curiosity, control of the environment) to extrinsic
sources of reward (printed output, hits in a data base query). Nevertheless, it is known
that intrinsic rewards—when they can be made salient to people—can be far more potent
motivators than extrinsic rewards (e.g., Greene and Lepper, 1979). Thus, one approach to
the Production Paradox is to make the intrinsic rewards of successfully learning and using
a computing system more salient to users.
Computer games have been investigated from this perspective. Malone (1981a,b)
argues that these games can be effective learning environments for children by stimulating
curiosity, fantasy and challenge as intrinsic sources of reward. One might imagine
incorporating aspects of a game environment into the interfaces of ordinary application
programs. For example, a version of the system could be made available for “playing;”
learners would receive points according to their ability first to accomplish tasks at all, and
second, to accomplish them in an optimal fashion. Carroll and Thomas (1982) suggested
that routine applications could be presented under multiple interesting cover stories: the
operator might be interacting with a flight simulator but in doing so actually managing a
process control application.
Intrinsic motivation might also be effectively stimulated by incorporating more abstract
elements of game environments into interface designs. One way that games motivate
participants is by conjuring a world in which uncertainty is acceptable. In the well-known
game of Adventure, players attempt to navigate a complex underground cave filled with
assorted treasures and dangers. At the very outset though, they do not even know this, and
as they go along they constantly encounter new and unexplained elements in the game.
They remain in a discovery mode, never quite sure whether they are making progress or
hopelessly lost. The game’s interface dialog is structured to instill the attitude that this is all
right, that uncertainty, discovery, and risk are inevitable. There is a rationale for this:
people prefer activities whose outcomes of success and failure are uncertain (Weiner,
1980), and outcome uncertainty has been found to maintain greater interest in an activity
(Berlyne, 1967). All this is in sharp contrast to typical application interface dialog, which
implicitly projects an end-product focus to users, ruling out uncertainty, discovery and risk
McKendree, Schorno and Carroll (1985) are currently experimenting with these ideas
in a management setting. One version of their Personal Planner system provides prompting
dialog that merely challenges the user to try things out. Other versions of the system
provide more conventional prompting dialog that identifies correct and incorrect user
Paradox of the Active User 6
responses. We expect that providing increased feedback and specifically increasing the
extent to which feedback is contingent on user goals and explicit behavior will increase
Attacking the end-product focus directly has apparent limitations. When one ponders
the proposals that have been made it seems evident that they will not work for all cases:
some procedures might be too intricate for dialogs that rely exclusively on piquing the
user’s curiosity; some users might find it difficult to relax their end-product orientation.
Moreover, the strategy can backfire: there are good effects of an end-product focus, and
these too may be undermined by suggesting alternate motivational orientations—users
might think of the system as a toy, or construe their real tasks in needlessly non-directive
ways. In sum, it seems that other approaches will also be required.
4.2 Mitigating the Effects of an End-Product Focus
A second approach to dealing with the Production Paradox would be to make learning a
less motivationally demanding task. There are two ways we might reduce the motivational
“cost” of learning: make the learning safer and more risk-free, or make the relevant
information easier to find. If trying out a new function is perceived as risk-free, a learner
may be more willing to try it; it is less likely to interfere with the goal of producing
something. Several design approaches have been taken in promoting the “safety” of
systems during training. These fall into two classes—controlling the consequences of any
given action by the user, and controlling the actions available to the user.
An extreme example falling into the first class is the “reconnoiter mode” proposed by
Jagodzinski (1983). Here, users would be able to enter a mode that simulates the results of
some proposed actions, but none of the activity has any permanent consequence for the
task. The problem here, of course, is that the simulated activity does not move the user
toward a goal in any real sense—it only allows him or her to “try out” something that when
repeated outside of reconnoiter mode might have the desired effect.
Another approach to controlling the consequences of actions requires that each
operation have an obvious inverse. Thus, if there is a command “drop” a file, there should
be a complementary command to invert that operation and “pick up” a file—and the names
of the commands should make this opposition salient (Carroll, 1982b). In such an
environment, a person can try something out at a very low cost: if the result is not what
was desired, the operation can be reversed, leaving no lasting consequence. A
generalization of this approach is the so-called “undo” command, which is intended to be
an inverse to any operation (or sequence of operations). Of course, this sounds simpler
than it is: What is the appropriate “grain” of undo (a typed character, a command, a user
task)? What state should you be in if three undos are executed in sequence? (See Gordon,
Leeman, and Lewis, 1984). Currently there are only approximations of undo available.
A second class of solutions moves the control up a level, so that the options available
are controlled, rather than their consequences. So, for example, one can design or retrofit
an interface so that advanced functions and/or potentially errorful troublespots are
unavailable to beginners (or more generally to users diagnosed as not yet ready for them).
This is sometimes called a “staged” interface. Staging the presentation of function can limit
the range of errors that inexperienced users can fall into, and therefore make experimenting
with the system less risky. An example is a system that refrains from displaying parameter
options when a workable default value is available (e.g., Smith, Irby, Kimbal, Verplank,
and Harslem, 1982). While such “progressive disclosure” restricts the range of activity
available to the user, it restricts in parallel the number of error conditions that can occur.
Work in our laboratory has developed a “training wheels” approach which combines
the two classes of solutions (Carroll, 1983). A training wheels interface displays all of the
function choices of a full function system, but disables advanced and provocative incorrect
choices during the early stages of a user’s learning. Making one of these choices merely
Paradox of the Active User 7
elicits a disablement message indicating that the selected function is not available during
training, leaving the user in the same system state. Thus, while the learner is allowed to
make an “error” (choosing an incorrect option), the consequences of the error are
We have carried out several experimental evaluations of the training wheels system.
We asked learners to use either the training wheels system or the complete commercial
system to learn to type and print out a simple document. The results of these studies were
quite encouraging: learners using the training wheels system got started faster, produced
better work, and spent less time not only on the errors that our design blocked, but on the
errors we did not block—indicating a generalized facilitation of learning. Moreover, the
magnitude of these advantages increase over the course of the experiment. Finally, the
training wheels learners performed better on a system concepts test we administered after
the experiment. (See Carroll and Carrithers, 1984).
An important complement to making learning safe is to make information about new
function easy to find and understand. Users focussed on a particular task may be much
more likely to enter into “learning mode” for a time, searching for new knowledge, if they
believe that the knowledge will be easy to come by. One way to encourage this perception
would focus on the reference materials available to a user. In the system studied in Rosson
(1984a), the reference material (manual, reference card, and help screens) is organized in a
linear, alphabetical fashion. This is true despite the fact that a large proportion of the 140
commands are never used interactively; they are issued only from within macros or stored
procedures. As a result, a user looking for information on commands useful to him or her
at the terminal must wade through a number of commands unlikely to ever be used by other
than a very sophisticated user. A relatively inexpensive improvement to such materials
would be to take into account actual usage patterns, rather than simply alphabetical
ordering, in organizing the material.
A more expensive approach would be to use the computer as an active partner in
learning. One might imagine a system that is able to determine the most effective path for
reaching any given goal. When users recognized limitations in their current knowledge,
they could query the system for a better method. An even more radical approach would be
to allow the system to take the initiative, thus removing the requirement that users be
motivated to look for learning opportunities (e.g., Shrager and Finin, 1982). Of course,
such methods assume considerable intelligence on the part of the system, at a level yet to be
provided in any real system. But even partial systems of this sort—a system that
recognizes and understands only a limited set of common inefficient methods, for
example—could contribute considerably to the goal of making the discovery and use of
new function easier.
The various approaches to reducing the motivation required of the user that we have
reviewed must be qualified in terms of their potential and current limitations. Many of
these proposals have yet to be implemented for serious testing; reconnoiter mode and undo
do not really exist in nonapproximate forms. And although some work has been done on
systems able to observe users and make suggestions, at this point the domains studied have
been rather restricted. Further, the proposals that have been implemented have generally
not been studied very thoroughly in terms of their behavioral concomitants. While
progressive disclosure makes a priori sense, we know of no empirical work examining its
effectiveness. The training wheels approach has only been studied for a single computer
application (word processing) and a single interface style (menu based control).
A host of behavioral questions remain open. How can systems transit between stages
so as to most facilitate transfer of old knowledge and incorporation of new knowledge?
What effects will the blocking of error consequences have on learning in the long run?
Preliminary results from Carroll and Kay (1985) suggest that certain types of protective
interfaces may have a negative effect on subsequent learning, indicating that the nature of
Paradox of the Active User 8
the “block” will be critical. If not presented carefully, a system that volunteers suggestions
for improvement may be so disruptive as to wipe out any benefits to learning. And of
course, there is the danger that by making learning too easy, we will make it too passive.
If all problems are automatically analyzed, and suggestions for improvement directly
provided, users’ motivation to learn may be reduced even further, due to lack of challenge.
Clearly, the issues here are complex, and it is unlikely that a single approach will be
4.3 Designing for the End-Product Focus
We need not take the learner’s focus on tangible products to be the problematic aspect of
the Production Paradox. As a complement to designing around the end-product focus, that
is, by making the system itself more intrinsically interesting or more safe to navigate and
easy to learn, we can directly exploit the user’s desire for a product by using it to drive
learning. We can take the production bias as our starting point, and attempt to design
systems and learning environments which actually depend on such an orientation.
An example is the Guided Exploration cards studied by Carroll, Mack, Lewis,
Grischkowsky, and Robertson (1985). This training approach challenges the assumption
that a linearly structured training manual format is the most appropriate training tool. The
cards are more task-oriented than manuals in that each card addresses a particular functional
goal that users can understand on the basis of their understanding of office tasks
(irrespective of computers). The cards are designed to keep learners focussed on and
involved in the learning task by being intentionally incomplete, often relying on hints. The
cards are also more simply organized than manuals. Each card attempts to address its
functional goal without reference to material covered on other cards. Finally, each card
includes specific checkpoint information (to help learners detect and diagnose errors) and
error recovery information (to help them get back on track). In addition, there is a general
“What if something goes wrong?” card that described remedies that applied anywhere.
We performed experimental evaluations of Guided Exploration cards and state-of-the-
art self-study training manuals. Learners using the Guided Exploration cards spent
substantially less time yet still performed better on a transfer of learning post-test than
learners using the commercially developed self-study manual. Taking learning efficiency to
be achievement per unit time, we found that the cards were nearly 3 times as efficient as the
manual. Moreover, qualitative analysis of learning protocols shows that the Guided
Exploration cards worked as they were designed to work: they increased attention to the
task, they encouraged learners to explore (and to do so successfully), they helped learners
recognize and recover from errors, and they provided a better understanding of learning
While this work was carried out for novice user groups, many of the objectives and
techniques of the work should apply to more experienced users as well. Indeed, some
systems now include “job aids” cards which are in many ways a generalization of Guided
Exploration cards. Other possibilities can be imagined. For example, one might design
reference material for advanced function in a text processing system that is organized
according to real-world goals, rather than system function. In such an environment, a
user’s first exposure to a macro facility might come in discovering how to update a
bibliography, with the result being a better association to actual needs. Work such as this
is underway at University of California (e.g., O’Malley, Smolensky, Bannon, Conway,
Graham, Sokolov, and Monty, 1983). The approach there has been to request goal-
oriented comments from users during their interactions with a system, and to base
recommendations for structuring reference materials on an analysis of these goals.
A separate area, now barely beginning, is the design of advice-giving
systems—systems which are designed to help the user better articulate his or her own goal
(Coombs and Alty, 1984). While this approach shares some similarities with the intelligent
Paradox of the Active User 9
help systems described in the previous section, a distinction exists in the level at which
suggestions are made. Instead of offering advice about ways to “tune” a method for
achieving a given result, these systems would attempt to assist a user in developing and
organizing task-oriented goals from the start.
Like the other approaches we have considered, attempts to design for the end-product
focus carry limitations. The proposals that have actually been implemented and studied all
rely on the user to have appropriate goals. But clearly this assumption may not hold. If the
user of Guided Exploration cards has a defective analysis of what he is trying to do, or if
the analysis is at a different level than that provided by the card titles, this training approach
may fail. And while we have suggested that intelligent problem-solving aids may
contribute to this piece of the process, it is not at all clear that such systems can truly be
developed. Finally, even if we assume the availability of appropriate goals, end-product
approaches may ultimately impair breadth of learning. An organization of knowledge by
particular task procedures may produce isolated modules of understanding that will be
difficult to combine when novel tasks are encountered.
5 The Assimilation Paradox
If we knew nothing at all, it is difficult to imagine how we could make any progress at
learning anything at all. Almost every new idea we learn comes to us through the graces of
things we have already mastered. Nevertheless, this unavoidably good learning strategy
cannot be the whole story—or indeed we would never learn anything truly new (Bartlett,
1932; Piattelli-Palmarini, 1980).
5.1 Problems for New Users
In discussing the Production Paradox, we made the point that even new users should be
thought of as experts, albeit not in the computer domain. As such, their natural approach to
a new tool is to try to use it—not simply to learn about it. As experts, new users also
know a lot, though what they know is not necessarily relevant to the computer domain.
Nevertheless, even a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, particularly in a situation
that invites the inference that it is relevant when it is not. This is a typical problem for new
users of computer systems.
New users of word processing applications often try to understand their systems by
reference to what they already know about typewriters (Carroll and Thomas, 1982). The
metaphor of a typewriter can be useful in this context. But it can also lead to trouble. New
users are often surprised that the Space Bar, Backspace key, and Carriage Return can
change the format of their documents (including deleting characters and inserting special
format characters into the document), as well as performing their more familiar typewriter
functions. Learning is of course facilitated by the typewriter metaphor, but those places
where the metaphor breaks down strain this advantage (see also Douglas and Moran,
We have seen similar problems in studying learners interacting with systems based on
the “desktop” metaphor, where users are invited to make the comparison of an office
system's directory objects to physical desktop objects like stationary, stationary pads, and
folders. In one extended episode a person tried to create some test documents and then to
store them. He started with a “folder,” and was somewhat unsure what to do with it. He
found operations for “making a stationary pad” and “tearing off stationary,” which seemed
consistent with his original goal, and tried them. Unfortunately, the interface metaphor
strains a bit here: what he got was a stationary pad of folders from which he tore off a
folder. This never quite sank in and for almost a hour he labored, selecting and making
stationary pads, tearing off stationary, but never creating and storing a test document. The
Paradox of the Active User 10
episode finally produced only a confused question: “Why can I sometimes make a
stationary pad and not tear off stationary and other times I can tear off stationary but not
make a stationary pad?”
Another aspect of this problem is that by relying on metaphors, learners impair their
ability to correctly anticipate the function of the system they are learning. For example, if
one conceives of an office work station as a super-typewriter, then it is doubtful that one
will tumble to an anticipation of its capabilities for formatting alternate fonts or for
integrating text functions with graphics, database, and spreadsheet functions.
5.2 Problems for experienced users.
Again, for experienced users the problem is somewhat more subtle. Experienced users, by
definition, either have experience on another system or systems, or they have prior
experience on the current system. In both cases, they have established patterns of behavior
and understanding that can interfere with the establishment of new patterns. Thus, people
who have some experience with traditional half-duplex systems (which require pressing an
Enter key to send buffered interactions to a host processor) may have trouble adjusting to
full-duplex systems (in which each keystroke is an interaction with the processor, and in
which Entering is not necessary): they expect to need Enter (much like a novice application
user might expect word processing functions to behave like the typewriter's Space Bar and
Backspace). In the survey work of Rosson (1984b), one of the most frequent classes of
responses to the question “What things about <the editor> were especially difficult to
learn?” described functions in the editor similar to, but slightly different from, those
available in a previously used editor.
This type of learning problem is called negative transfer, the inhibition of later learning
by prior learning of related material. The classic demonstrations of the phenomenon have
been in the context of unrelated word lists (e.g., Underwood, 1957), and the effects are
much less robust in real-world situations. However, it is clear that there is some disruption
caused by the mapping of new command names or function keys to identical or similar
function goals. Fortunately, while the interference can be frustrating during initial learning,
it tends to be a short-lived problem, one that disappears if the learner discontinues use of
the old system. And in general, its negative effects are more than compensated by the
positive transfer that occurs for more general system concepts (Singley and Anderson,
There is another component of the assimilation paradox, however, that can have long-
lasting effects. Prior knowledge not only can mislead users about how a system will work,
but also it can in a sense put blinders on them, preventing them from fully anticipating the
function available. This negative effect of prior knowledge can be especially debilitating,
because often a learner may be completely unaware of the problem.
Evidence of these limiting effects of prior knowledge is seen in the routine editing
behavior analyzed by Rosson (1984b). So, for example, one feature of the editor used by
individuals in this study is a set of program function (PF) keys that can be used to speed up
editing activities through assignment of frequently used functions to single keypresses. We
discovered that larger function key repertoires were in fact associated with faster work
rates; however, there was no tendency for key repertoire to be greater for the users most
experienced with this particular system. Instead, use of the keys appeared to be a function
of users' experience with other editors—specifically, experience with other screen-oriented
systems seemed to encourage use of a greater number of PF keys. We believe that users'
experience with other systems that rely heavily on function keys allowed them to recognize
similar possibilities in this system. In contrast, users familiar only with more traditional
command-driven systems were blinded to the many opportunities for extending their
editing methods that these programmable keys provide.
Paradox of the Active User 11
6 Approaches to the Assimilation Paradox
As in the case of the Production Paradox, we will describe three different approaches to the
Assimilation Paradox. One approach is to attack the assimilative tendency, to try to get
people to deal with the system on its own terms, as it were, and not “as if” it were similar
to something else they already know about. A second approach tries to compromise,
simplifying the assimilation processes required of (or offered to) users, and therefore
hopefully mitigating the force of the paradox. Finally, a third approach manipulates the
assimilative opportunities for the user, deliberately highlighting inconsistencies between the
current situation and the prior knowledge engaged in order to stimulate new learning.
6.1 Attacking Assimilation
As we remarked above, we doubt that the tendency for people to try to learn assimilatively
can be altered. Nevertheless, effort could be directed at limiting the apparent similarity of a
new experience to some prototype of past experiences. If we think of this relativistically
we might expect that the trackball as a pointing device for text applications would be less
susceptible to inappropriate assimilation than are step-keys for cursor pointing. The latter
work very similarly to typewriter pointing via the Carriage Return, Space Bar, and
Backspace. As a result, users might be less likely to begin with misconceptions about how
a trackball works, and might be more likely to imagine, and to learn, novel aspects of its
One could also take an instructional approach, specifically directing the learning
experience, advising against assimilation at least in certain cases. Interface metaphors, like
the desktop and typewriter comparisons mentioned earlier, have only recently been
incorporated into system training and documentation. Perhaps we need to qualify these
explicit invitations to assimilative learning strategies. Halasz and Moran (1982) assume
this, suggesting that users be provided with explicit models of the system, highly accurate
and arbitrarily complete descriptions, usually in some abstract format, like a flow-chart or a
graph (e.g., du Boulay, O'Shea and Monk, 1981; Moran, 1981; and Young, 1981).
Indeed, they suggest that the user be warned against apparent metaphors and analogies in
favor of this more literal conceptual model.
One thing that explicit system models have in common with analogical models is that
both focus on concepts users need to master in order to have “understood” the system—as
opposed to the operational procedures users must execute in order to use the system. This
distinction suggests another approach to attacking assimilation, namely to forego attempts
to encourage “conceptual” models at all—literal or analogical. Instead, user training and
interaction could be aimed strictly at the procedures a user must execute, minimizing the
conceptual material incorporated into these descriptions. An example is the teaching of
recursive programming to students learning LISP. Pirolli, Anderson and Farrell (1984)
found that students learned recursive programming much more quickly if directly provided
with the programming procedures, than if provided with a conceptual model of recursion.
There are apparent limitations to approaches that try to eliminate assimilation. For
example, can a designer really provide the user with a conceptual model that does not evoke
assimilation, as advocated by Halasz and Moran? Carroll and Mack (1985) argue that
when such a model is codified in any way (e.g., on paper as a graph or a chart), as it
would have to be in order to function as an instructional tool, its interpretation will require
prior knowledge about such representational formats and their characteristic interpretation.
To the extent that this process is not automatic and determinate, it will be assimilative.
Thus, there is no sharp dichotomy here and no way to eliminate assimilation in toto.
It is also not clear that strictly procedural materials can really be developed. The
examples available so far either provide implicit conceptual content (e.g., trading on
Paradox of the Active User 12
understood conventions for flow-charts and graphs) or confound conceptual content per se
with difficulty of material (Pirolli et al. reduced conceptual content by eliminating
conceptual material on recursion, but in doing so eliminated a notoriously difficult concept
as well). Perhaps the most severe limitation is that non-assimilative materials—if they can
be developed—may be inappropriate for real users. Detailed descriptions and step-by-step
directions, such as those one might find in a state-of-the-art self-instruction manual, are
often close approximations to the explicit model approach of Halazs and Moran or to the
pure procedural approach, but they are inconsistent with the propensities and capacities of
actual learners trying to master computing systems (the Production Paradox).
6.2 Mitigating the Effects of Assimilation
A second approach to the Assimilation Paradox would be to accept assimilation as a given
of learners and learning, and to try to design systems such that potential negative effects are
minimized. One way to do this is to simplify the assimilative process by reducing the
“assimilative gap.” For example, one could take a strong view of metaphors in which the
metaphor comparisons would have to be completely obvious and true: if the word
processor appears to be “like” a typewriter, then it indeed would be operable in exactly the
same way as a typewriter. Extending this idea, one could approach computer system
design in general from the perspective of naive and intuitive expectations, designing the
appearance and operation of systems so that they optimally accord with user expectations.
What the user sees and predicts when introduced to the system is guaranteed to be correct
by the designer.
One example of such an approach is the principle of direct manipulation described by
Shneiderman (1983). He argues that wherever possible, the operations available to a user
should be based on physical metaphors. So, for example, instead of issuing commands to
modify textual material indirectly, word processors should allow users to move directly to
text to be edited, and press buttons to produce the desired changes. This approach may not
be extensible, however: it is by no means clear that there will be appropriate physical
analogs to computer system function in the general case. Further, the approach is based on
the fundamental assumption that a physical analog will indeed provide the best match to
learners’ naive expectancies about system function. The validity of this assumption has yet
to be demonstrated.
A related approach incorporates naive expectations about system operation, but
develops the understanding of users' intuitions through empirical observation, rather than
through analysis and assumption. Mack (1984) provides an example of this approach, in
his design of a word processing system based on a prior study of naive users’ expectations
about how such a system would work. In observing learners’ interactions with the
resulting system, however, Mack discovered that the goal of matching naive intuitions is a
difficult one to meet. Intuitions are often very complex, inconsistent, even irrational.
Further, not all users have the same intuitions, suggesting that designing an intuitive
interface for the general case may be an impossible task. Mack’s solution to this was to use
behavioral observations as a starting point for his design, relying on an empirically-driven
iterative process to point to modifications and additions not suggested by the initial corpus
of naive expectations.
The problem of nonconvergent user expectations is not merely an issue of “early
learning,” something users outgrow. Mayer and Bayman (1981; see also Bayman and
Mayer, 1984) asked students to predict the outcomes of keypress sequences on a
calculator. All of the students were experienced users of calculators, but nonetheless their
prediction responses varied considerably. For example, some predicted that an evaluation
occurs immediately after a number key is pressed, some predicted that evaluation occurs
immediately after an operation (e.g., plus) key is pressed, and some predicted that an
evaluation occurs immediately after equals is pressed. The variability and the inaccuracy of
Paradox of the Active User 13
these predictions varied as a function of the student's prior training in programming, but it
is open as to whether this is a smoothing effect of experience or of aptitude.
Other research has explored the possibility of addressing nonconvergent expectations
by providing increased flexibility. Furnas, Landauer, Gomez, and Dumais (1984)
analyzed naive users’ intuitions about function names and found considerable variation
among users. They developed a limited natural language facility with multiple levels of
keyword synonyms for an information retrieval application (Gomez and Lochbaum, 1984).
Good, Whiteside, Wixon and Jones (1985) used a similar approach in developing an
electronic mail application. These interfaces could simultaneously meet the different
expectations of different people.
A major limitation of approaches that seek to reduce the assimilative gap directly has
been the size of the example systems developed. So, for example, all major examples of
direct manipulation interfaces are small systems with relatively little function (experimental
simulations or hobbyist personal computers for the most part). Intuitive design approaches
have also addressed small-scale systems environments. There has yet to be a
demonstration that this empirically-driven mapping between interface and intuitions will
work for more complex real-world systems. Finally, there remains the possibility of a
more general cost of eliminating the assimilative gap: if learners are no longer required to
“work” for their new knowledge, they may fail to engage in the active processing critical to
building a rich and flexible understanding.
6.3 Designing for Assimilation
A final approach to the Assimilative Paradox exploits the accommodation that can occur
when assimilation fails. The terms assimilation and accommodation are associated with the
theory of Jean Piaget (1954) in whose view the two are natural complements: learners
assimilate experience into mental structures as possible, and then accommodate mental
structures to experience as necessary. Computer interfaces and accompanying materials
can be deliberately cast to stimulate direct comparisons between the current situation (the
system itself so to speak) and whatever prior knowledge is engaged by the current
situation, thereby highlighting key similarities and differences. These comparisons must be
engineered to stimulate inferential processing, hypothesis testing, and active learning
(Carroll and Mack, 1985; Whiteside and Wixon, 1985).
Consider the often referred to computer interface metaphor “a text editor is a super
typewriter.” Not all properties of a typewriter can be carried over to a developing concept
of a text processor. Some can (the layout and character-transmission function of the keys);
some cannot (character keys cannot straightforwardly be overstruck using a text editor);
and some can be mapped from the typewriter base, but somewhat problematically (e.g.,
with respect to the storage of information, the tape recorder provides an alternate—and in
some ways more accurate—metaphor). The comparison of a text editor with a typewriter
carries all of these implications. The obvious similarities in function and form afford the
metaphor in the first place: text editor learners almost never puzzle over what will happen
when they strike a character key. In the context of such canonical and salient
correspondences, the dissimilarities between the text editor and a typewriter become open
questions—impelling further thought and leading then to further learning.
For example, keying two characters at the same location on a conventional typed page
results in an overstrike. However, text editors do not produce overstrikes (in this way).
They either insert (i.e., place the new character adjacent to the old one, and adjust the text
line accordingly) or replace (i.e., place the new character where the old one was—deleting
the old one). Conventional typewriters, of course, do not have an insert or replace
capability; this is a clear dissimilarity in the metaphor. But this incomplete fit is not a
functional a limitation on the metaphor. Salient dissimilarities—in the context of salient
Paradox of the Active User 14
similarities—stimulate thought and afford a concrete opportunity for developing an
enhanced understanding of the electronic medium (e.g., the concept of dynamic storage).
Consider an example from a computer system that is based on the metaphor of a
desktop. In this system objects and their manipulations are represented concretely (at least
on the surface): for example, to create a new document file, a user is prompted to initiate
an action roughly described as “tearing off paper,” in the context of an icon representing a
pad of paper. One user we observed took the prompt quite literally. He tried to execute the
action of “tearing” by sweeping the cursor across the icon representing the paper. In fact,
the metaphor is misleading in this case because actions applied to objects like files (or
applications) must be selected in a more conventional fashion, from menus which describe
the actions. Was the metaphor a failure? In fact, the experience was informative: the user
understood that the desktop metaphor has certain boundary conditions, but more
importantly he had a specific insight into the concept of selection and the fundamental role it
plays in this interface (see Carroll and Mack, 1985).
The cognitive engineering challenge that inheres in designing for assimilation is
formidable. In this approach, we design not merely to enhance simplicity, but to manage
the presentation of complexity, to stimulate and guide an active problem-solving orientation
and thereby to elicit better learning and more skilled and fulfilled routine performance.
Much evidence indicates how these processes can go awry when they are not guided
effectively. Thus, Scandura, Lowerre, Veneski, and Scandura (1976) described a student
who came to the conclusion that the equals and plus keys on a calculator had no function by
observing that the keys caused no visible change in the display. Norman (1983a) described
learners who superstitiously pressed the clear key on calculators several times, when a
single a keypress would do.
A key problem with designing for assimilation is determing how and when
assimilative opportunities should be provided to learners. A classic approach has been to
provide learners with advance organizers (Ausubel, 1960) that engage and direct
appropriate prior knowledge. The idea is that making relevant prior knowledge available at
the outset allows it to be brought to bear on the variety of problems that the user actually
encounters, hence increasing the chance that the learning will be meaningful. This
approach has been used in studies of learning computing (Foss, Rosson, and Smith, 1982;
Mayer, 1976). It is difficult, though, for the designer to predict if the prior knowledge
engaged by the advance organizer will still be salient to the user when an opportunity for
7 Is Effective Learning Possible?
In couching our discussion in the language of paradoxes, we have not intended to project
the connotation of hopelessness, just of complexity. A paradox, in this sense, is a problem
utterly refractory to a simple, comprehensive, logical treatment. Human learning is in this
sense paradoxical. We do not believe that there is a simple, comprehensive, logical
treatment of human learning in the offing, now or ever. But if the problem is complex, it is
surely not hopeless. We have raised a number of suggestions as to how the paradoxes of
learning can be addressed. However, as we have pointed out along the way, these
solutions themselves have problems.
A premise of our discussion has been that the paradoxes of learning must be taken
seriously, not as defects or errors but as fundamental patterns of learning. One could
question this premise, and clearly there are no demonstrative arguments either way, but it
seems to us that the inevitability of both paradoxes is plausible. If learners were less
focussed on action, the Production Paradox could be avoided. But the cost would be that
the connection between knowledge and performance goals would be far less stable, far less
Paradox of the Active User 15
direct. If learners were to rely less on prior experience, the Assimilation Paradox could be
avoided. But here the cost would be a far less stable and direct connection between prior
learning and new learning achievement. Both the paradoxes point to a single—and perhaps
disturbing—fact of mental life: adults resist explicitly addressing themselves to new
learning (see also Knowles, 1973; Kidd, 1977).
If we are correct, the paradox of the active learner entails specific a priori limitations on
how much we can accelerate learning—limitations that apply irrespective of design
intervention. Our only course, however, is to address the paradox through design,
resigning ourselves to inevitable trade-offs (Norman, 1983b). In our discussion of
approaches to the Production and Assimilation Paradoxes, we have considered solutions
from three often conflicting perspectives: direct attacks on the underlying learning
tendency, ways to limit the effects of the tendency, and attempts to take advantage of the
tendency in a creative way (see Table 5.1).
Summary of the Active User Paradox
Production Paradox: Users focus on end products at the expense of prerequisite learning
Attack: Make learning the system intrinsically Systems as games
rewarding Performance feedback
Mitigate: Make learning the system easy Training wheels
Design for: Exploit the user’s desire for a product by Guided Exploration cards
using it to drive learning
Assimilation Paradox: Users apply prior knowledge even when it does not apply
Attack: Repress potential connections to prior Explicit system models
knowledge Performance feedback
Mitigate: Make or describe the system as truly similar Direct manipulation
to something familiar Natural language
Design for: Exploit the accommodation that can occur Incomplete metaphors
when assimilation fails
In discussing the Production Paradox, we suggested that one solution might be to try
to reduce learners’ production bias by making the system more intrinsically interesting.
But it is not clear that all systems can be presented in this fashion, and even if they could,
we can not be sure that the effects of such an approach would be uniformly
beneficial—users might well come to see the system not as a useful tool, but rather as a toy
to play with on occasion. The other solutions have their own problems: if we try to get
around learners’ motivation to produce rather than learn, by reducing the cost of
learning—perhaps through error blocking and guided discovery of function—we run the
risk of making learning too passive, or of setting up learning situations that may not
transfer to subsequent usage scenarios. And finally, if we accept learners’ end-product
focus, and try to design systems and training materials to take advantage of it, we risk
Paradox of the Active User 16
either guessing at inappropriate goals for users or relying on users to structure their own
goals, a task they for which they may be poorly prepared.
Our analysis of solutions to the Assimilation Paradox also pointed to limitations in
each case. If assimilation is attacked directly, through designs too novel to assimilate, or
through explicit instructions intended to eliminate assimilation, any learning that does take
place may be quite fragile, due to its lack of connection with the learner’s wealth of past
experiences. And if we try to mitigate the problem by reducing the assimilative gap as
much as possible, we may set ourselves up for designs that are trivial and offer little new
function. Further, the “learning” involved here would again be extremely passive,
requiring little cognitive effort on the part of the user, and might well lead to a less
comprehensive understanding. Lastly, it seems attractive to contemplate designing for
assimilation, attempting to incorporate concepts which have a natural link to prior
knowledge, while stretching the mind by introducing inconsistencies at appropriate stages.
However, the development of metaphors and other learning guidance for this is difficult,
and only now beginning to have impact on user interface designs.
The paradoxes themselves are best thought of as indicative of fundamental orientations
to learning, as properties of the learning. Of concern to us as design scientists, however, is
the status of the solutions we have described. We have pointed to specific limitations in
each case, and it is by no means clear that they can be resolved in any satisfactory way. It
is important to note, though, that many of the limitations in these solutions stem from our
analysis of the state of the art in interface design. We are not rejecting in principle the
possibility that breakthroughs in design might speak to these problems in ways we cannot
anticipate now. But frankly, we doubt it.
8 Learning and Design
We have argued that the issues associated with these paradoxes are complex enough, and
the tradeoffs implied by the various solutions significant enough, that any single approach
will not be sufficient. Rather designers will need to creatively sample from complementary
or indeed even competing approaches. In this section, we briefly describe a method for
undertaking such an eclectic process, illustrated by recent work on training manual design
(for greater detail, see Carroll, 1984; Carroll and Rosson, 1985).
The first stage of design is analytic. It consists of the eclectic sampling of design
elements implied by state-of-the-art empirical work, as well as by formal analyses of the
design problem (e.g., as in Moran, 1981 and Reisner, 1984). An important constraint,
though, is that the sampling be user-centered: it must be done in the context of specific
considerations engendered by the particular design domain at hand: Who are the users?
What are their special interests, needs, and difficulties? How does the particular system
address these? None of this is front page design news. It makes perfect sense to have an
understanding of what you are designing and who you are designing it for before you
begin work—and to take advantage of whatever theoretical base is currently available
(guidelines, user complexity metrics, etc.). Often, though, designers focus on a single
approach to usability problems (e.g., the use of physical metaphors). We argue instead
that they should be encouraged to incorporate complementary or even contradictory
principles into their initial analysis.
The second stage of design involves detailed empirical testing of the subskills that will
determine users’ success with the system. This subskill analysis should also center on the
activities of the intended users: What subskills are necessary for a typical user to perform a
typical task on the system? Thus, a planning application intended for personnel managers
to use in preparing salary and promotion plans, must be tested on a set of typical personnel
managers who are asked to use it to prepare typical salary and promotion plans. Relevant
Paradox of the Active User 17
subskills might be an ability to describe the steps needed to accomplish a given task, a
paraphrase understanding of menu selections and prompts, and an ability to recover from
some of the more likely error states.
Because the goal of subskill testing is to rapidly gather detailed information about
design elements, the testing should be qualitative rather than quantitative in nature,
producing diagnostic rather than performance measures. Interpretation should focus on
inadequacies in both the function provided by the system, and the interface for the user.
For example, close observation of managers interacting with our hypothetical personnel
planning application might reveal both that salary and promotion plans need to share data in
particular ways (a function problem), and that typical personnel managers misunderstand
certain specific prompts in the system dialog (an interface problem). This information must
then be fed back into the design process so that the next iteration can remedy the problems.
Subskill testing is inevitably a process of discovery and one in which the original design
undergoes important changes.
While reiterative subskill testing guarantees a sort of local optimization of the design, it
is not directed at providing an objective benchmark assessment of the final success of the
design. Nonetheless it is useful in the end to know just how good a design really is, for
example, relative to other contrasting designs or relative to particular usability goals. For
example, can the final planning application for salary and promotion plans be used for
routine tasks by typical personnel managers after one hour of training? Can it be learned
faster than the current state-of-the-art alternative systems? Criterion testing is an important
third stage of design, providing a means of empirically validating the results of the eclectic,
iterative approach taken in the first two stages. We turn now to a description of a case
study in which this three-stage approach was employed.
The development of the Minimal Manual (Carroll, 1984; Carroll, Smith-Kerker, Ford,
and Mazur, 1985) exemplifies of the eclectic design process we have described. The initial
design of the manual was a response to a number of observations about how naive users
learn to use word processing systems, and many of these observations have already been
discussed in illustrating the Production and Assimilation Paradoxes. But it is the design
response to these paradoxes that is of particular interest here, because it reflects a sampling
of approaches that might at first seem in conflict.
The Minimal Manual design work addressed the Production Paradox by
simultaneously attempting to both attack and support the end-product bias. Thus, the
manual included On Your Own sections that encouraged users to apply the procedures they
had just worked through to new problems of their own choosing, leaving the instructions
intentionally incomplete in an effort to promote intrinsic interest in the learning process
through a performance challenge. This aspect of the design directly competed with another
aspect, which was to support the end-product bias by streamlining prerequisites and
focussing training activity on the production of real work output. In this case, two
apparently conflicting strategies were consciously combined to yield a richer design
The design approach adopted for problems stemming from the Assimilation Paradox
was similar. A major feature of the Minimal Manual design was the removal of the
conceptual material often found in training manuals, and a focus instead on concrete
procedures. This constitutes an attack on assimilation through an emphasis on procedural
rather than conceptual knowledge. However, this approach was combined throughout with
instances of designing for assimilation through the careful use of metaphoric references.
So, in describing procedures for removing unwanted line-end characters from the data
stream, the manual specifically introduced the “blank line” metaphor as a way of identifying
the problem. Importantly, though, it then went on to identify the difference between the
metaphoric reference (a physical blank line) and the word processing problem (the presence
of a line-end character). Ideally, pointing to such a divergence would serve not only to aid
Paradox of the Active User 18
learners in correcting this specific problem, but also to initiate processing leading to more
general insights about the control of page layout via special formatting characters (Carroll
and Mack, 1985).
After its initial design, the Minimal Manual underwent subskill analysis and testing. In
some cases, this testing confirmed that the design principles had corrected problems
observed with other training manuals. So, for example, the emphasis on procedural rather
than conceptual material significantly reduced the problems learners encountered in
achieving the important subskill of getting to the typing area. This activity requires
traversing several menus, and can seem quite complex when described within a conceptual
framework; the Minimal Manual reduced this to a few simple steps (in part by sheer
deletion of conceptual material).
Importantly, though, the subskill testing also uncovered points at which the basic
procedural approach was not optimal. One such point was the assignment of a document
name, a fairly simple procedure, but one that appeared to confuse learners conceptually.
This problem was treated by the addition of two brief conceptual sections. One developed
a metaphor based on the practice of labelling physical office file folders to introduce the
requirement that data objects like documents have names; the other developed a metaphor
based on the practice of naming babies before they are born to introduce the requirement
that data objects must be named before they can be used at all. This material, while it
represented a departure from simple procedural descriptions, filled an important need.
Without the early qualitative testing, the need may not have been discovered.
After the iterative design process, guided by subskill testing, the Minimal Manual
underwent criterial testing (Carroll, Smith-Kerker, Ford, and Mazur, 1985). In one
experiment, learners used one of five training methods (including two variations of the
Minimal Manual) for up to seven full working days. The Minimal Manual proved to be
substantially faster than the other manuals for the basic topic areas it covered—and to
produce learning achievement at least as good as the other methods. The Minimal Manual
only covered basic topics, where the commercial manuals covered advanced topics as well.
In a later phase of the experiment, Minimal Manual learners were transferred to the
advanced topics sections of a commercial manual. Notably, they still were substantially
faster, but in this comparison their performance on learning achievement tests was better by
a factor of eight. In sum, this experiment provided evidence that the final Minimal Manual
design was an order of magnitude more effective than comparable state-of-the-art
commercial manual designs, and as such represents a successful application of an eclectic
The paradox of the active user seriously constrains designs of computing
environments for people to use. We have presented an analysis of the paradox from
cognitive and motivational standpoints, and we have described a variety of programmatic
approaches to its resolution. Nevertheless, it is not our view that any cookbook
engineering solution is likely to develop and “solve” this problem tout court.. Rather, we
believe that this paradox inheres in human-computer interaction, that it derives from
fundamental properties of human behavior and experience, and that addressing it through
usability research and design will be an on-going project in the forseeable future. The
social and technological urgency of this project entails an outstanding opportunity and
challenge to cognitive science by placing it in a public spotlight in which the power of its
theory and methodolology will be assessed by the absolute yardstick of practical efficacy.
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