Computer glitches would be a lot less annoying if the machines were programmed to acknowledge errors gracefully when something goes wrong, instead of merely flashing up a brusque “you goofed” message.
The trick, according to a researcher who has analysed users’ responses to their computers, is to make operating systems and software more “civilised” by saying sorry more often. That way people won’t feel they are stupid or at fault, so they become less apprehensive about using computers, and perhaps more productive and creative.
Jeng-Yi Tzeng at the National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan took inspiration for his research from the Chinese saying: “No one would blame a polite person.” He wondered if people would be equally forgiving of more courteous computers.
To find out, Tzeng wrote two versions of a computer-based guessing game – one apologetic and the other brusque – and asked 269 high-school students to play one or the other. The aim of the game was to guess a Chinese saying, but irritatingly the program frequently made them guess the very same saying in successive rounds. It also provided ineffective or irrelevant clues, or came up with a confusing user interface.
In one version of the game, the computer apologised to users when they missed a turn because of these flaws, by flashing up the message: “We are sorry that the clues were not very helpful for you. Please try the next game.” The other version merely issued a terse, unfriendly message: “This is not correct.”