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DateLine Sunday, 30 September 2007

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'Unfriendly' software design may be turning women off computers

Researchers studying why men are more likely than women to use advanced software have suggested that one solution to this gender gap may lie in the design of software itself. A couple of years ago, a computer science Ph.D. from Oregon State University, Laura Beckwith and her adviser Margaret Burnett set out to investigate why women and men might interact so differently with the same software.

Beckwith examined over 30 years' worth of books and academic papers from psychologists, education researchers, economists, computer scientists and others about gender differences in problem solving and computer use. What grabbed her attention was the theory that said that both men and women's confidence in their ability to do a challenging task affects their approach and the outcome.

Upon reading this theory in the light of the findings of most of the studies that women have less confidence than men in their computer skills, Beckwith was compelled to think whether women were actually less confident than men when it came to software debugging.

Working with Burnett and Susan Wieldenbeck of Drexel University, Beckwith asked a group of women and men, in a questionnaire, whether they believed they could find and fix errors in spreadsheets filled with formulas.

The participants were made to sit in front of a computer with two spreadsheets-one of which tracked student's grades, and the other calculated employees' paychecks.

Beckwith buried five errors in each one without telling the participants, and gave them time limit to test all the formulas and to fix any bugs. The program included a debugging feature that helped the users spot miscalculations by the formulas underlying the spreadsheet and other errors.

The researchers found that both men and women using the debugging feature were better at finding and fixing the bugs.

However, only those women used the automated debugging tools who believed that they could do the task successfully, and women with lower confidence in the task relied instead on what they knew-such as editing formulas one by one-and ended up introducing more bugs than when they started.

Being a computer scientist, Beckwith was not inclined to changing women's confidence levels. She was rather interested in finding out whether changing the software could help women over this hurdle, and that is why she explored whether a gentler presentation of the debugging tool, one that seemed to require less confidence, would appeal to women.

She carried out two more studies-one with the debugging tool that let users mark values "right" or "wrong", and the other with two more choices of "seems right maybe" and "seems wrong maybe". The program was also changed so that users did not require to right-click the mouse, which less-experienced computer users are reluctant to do.

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