Publication | ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems 2022

Supercharging Trial-and-Error for Learning Complex Software Applications

Learning by doing using trial-and-error remains many people’s preferred way to learn complex software even though most software learning research has focused primarily on explicit help such as tutorials. This means there is an opportunity to leverage people’s natural tendency to use trial-and-error and make it easier for customers to explore software functionality in our products. In this paper, we introduce three techniques to facilitate trial-and-error that we implemented in Fusion 360: ToolTrack to keep track of trial-and-error progress; ToolTrip to go beyond trial-and-error of single commands by highlighting related commands that are frequently used together; and ToolTaste to quickly and safely try commands. These three novel techniques provide a potential competitive advantage for our software by making it easier for customers to explore new functionality in the product and “learn by doing”. The trial-and-error techniques can also still be combined with existing tutorials and learning material.

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Abstract

Supercharging Trial-and-Error for Learning Complex Software Applications

Damien Masson, Jo Vermeulen, George Fitzmaurice, Justin Matejka

ACM SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems 2022

Despite an abundance of carefully-crafted tutorials, trial-and-error remains many people’s preferred way to learn complex software. Yet, approaches to facilitate trial-and-error (such as tooltips) have evolved very little since the 1980s. While existing mechanisms work well for simple software, they scale poorly to large feature-rich applications. In this paper, we explore new techniques to support trial-and-error in complex applications. We identify key benefits and challenges of trial-and-error, and introduce a framework with a conceptual model and design space. Using this framework, we developed three techniques: ToolTrack to keep track of trial-and-error progress; ToolTrip to go beyond trial-and-error of single commands by highlighting related commands that are frequently used together; and ToolTaste to quickly and safely try commands. We demonstrate how these techniques facilitate trial-and-error, as illustrated through a proof-of-concept implementation in the CAD software Fusion 360. We conclude by discussing possible scenarios and outline directions for future research on trial-and-error.

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