2(1), November 1984, page 5

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How "Friendly" Should Effective Software Be?

Jack Jobst
Billie Wahlstrom
Department of Humanities
Michigan Technological University
Houghton, Michigan 49931

Most computer-assisted instruction (CAI) written for microcomputers employs fictive personalities to simulate a teacher/student relationship. Such interactive programs are often described as "user friendly" because users need not memorize complicated code words and symbols to run them. Instead, users can rely on methods more closely approximating those used by human beings, especially teachers. Instead of the cryptic "enter USERID/PASSWORD," friendly programs mimic human queries by displaying "Hi, Student. Print your name below, and we'll get started."

Friendly programs are popular with students because they are easier to use, and they are popular with educators who assume they simulate classroom interchanges between students and "ideal" instructors, that is, teachers who function with infinite patience and kindly encouragement. But numerous, conflicting descriptions exist of the ideal teacher, and while some might be appreciated by students for their pleasant, unremitting dispositions, they may not be as effective as teachers who are short-tempered and even somewhat demanding. In other words, friendliness might not be as conducive to learning as other qualities.

Yet another variable involved with determining the effectiveness of friendly CAI may be age of the user. In a recent advertisement, the Sperry Corporation pointed out that "user friendly computer systems still make enemies" because they take up more space in the computer's memory and annoy some experienced users with tedious dialogue. Sperry, however, is probably thinking of operating systems for adult users. Student computer users may well prefer dialogue, regardless of their computer experience.

Questions about effectiveness and user preference have provoked several of us at Michigan Technological University to reexamine CAI personalities that are cute ("Hi, I'm Ms. Quiz, and we're going to learn common denominators.") and to contemplate the effect of neutral or even hostile persona on the learning process ("You mean you still don't know how to use the semicolon? Okay, dummy, let's get started.")

We are now beginning research into the relationship between persona and learning effectiveness, and we are interested in hearing from others involved with similar research.