Saturday, April 11, 2020

Nass & Reeves – Computers are seen as human…

The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television and New Media Like Real People and Places by Byron Reeves and Clifford Nass, two Stanford academics, is full of cardinal research studies on media in learning. It provides a compelling case, backed up with empirical studies, to show that that people confuse media with real life. In online learning this is a beneficial confusion: it is what makes movies, television, radio, the web and online learning work. 

Media equals real life

35 psychological studies into the human reaction to media all point towards the simple proposition that people react towards media socially even though, at a conscious level, they believe it is not reasonable to do so. They can't help it. In short, people think that computers are people, which benefits online learning.
Why is this so? We do not willingly suspend disbelief, it just happens. Think of a ventriloquist – it is hard not to see the puppet as a real person. In practice we can't help but see mediated experiences as actual people and objects. We swear at cars when they break down and kick objects when they cause us harm. We do it because the mind projects intention, even when it is not there. 
Hearteningly, it means that there is no reason why online learning experiences should be any less compelling - any less 'human' in feel - than what we experience in the classroom. As long as a media technology is consistent with social and physical rules, we readily accept it. If the media technology fails to conform to these human expectations and rules - we will not accept it.
The spell is easily broken. If the media technology fails to conform to our human expectations - we will NOT accept it. This is a fascinating rule for online earning. We must learn to design our learning experiences as if it were being delivered by real people in a realistic fashion. The effectiveness of the user experience on an emotional level will depend as much on these considerations as on the scriptwriting and media design and production. It all has to work seamlessly, or the illusion of humanity fails. This has huge implications in terms of the use of media and media mix. 

Scrap learning objectives

Let us take just one example; arousal. First impressions matter in real life, arouse people at the start and they will remember more. Yet if the first experience many learners have in an online learning programme is a detailed registration procedure followed by a dull list of learning objectives, you will have failed at the first hurdle. There is a strong argument for emotional engagement at the start of an online learning programme and not the usual list of objectives. On the other hand, persistent arousal and over-arousal can be counterproductive. 

Awkward pauses

Another simple Nass & Reeves finding is that we have real life expectations for media, such as our dislike of unnatural timing. Slight pauses, latency, waits and unexpected events cause cognitive disruption. Audio-video asynchrony, such as poor lip-synch or jerky delays on video, will result in negative evaluations of the speaker. These problems are cognitively disturbing and hinder learning. 

Experts matter

With experts, respected and authoritative views can, not only bring credibility to the programme, they can also increase learning and retention. For this reason many online learning programmes use a key subject matter expert, or someone with strong practical experience in the area, to anchor the theory and practice. This could be an academic, opinion leader, consultant or senior manager. People like identifiable experts. 

Quality of video no big deal

Nass and Reeves speculated that because peripheral vision is largely ill-defined and we are used to dealing perceptually with low visual fidelity in twilight, fog and so on, we are likely to cope well with low fidelity visual images. So they tested their hypothesis by measuring attention, memory and evaluation of the experience when viewing video. Interestingly, they could detect no difference between those who viewed low as opposed to high fidelity images. So don’t waste your money on broadcast quality video.

Quality of audio is a big deal

They also showed that users are more sensitive to the quality of audio than they are to video. This may sound surprising, but people are quite unforgiving when it comes to tinny audio with variable sound levels. Learners expect consistently high quality at a consistent volume., as we are attuned to close one to one, proximate speech. The lesson here is pay attention to the quality of your audio.

Big screens are good

Taking their experiments further they also discovered that the size and shape of the screen, and therefore image, mattered more than quality. Large screens and images were preferable to higher quality images and horizontal screens and images were also preferred over higher quality. In other words larger wide screen format monitors have more impact than quality of image. This raises interesting questions about mobile learning or small postage stamp images of teachers on screens.

Politeness matters

Perhaps the most surprising thing to come out of the book is the role of politeness - which, it turns out, is hardwired into our systems. People are polite to computers and expect them to be polite to them. The authors' studies show that when a computer asks a user questions about its own performance, the user will give more positive responses than when a different computer asks the same questions. People also respond to flattery from computers, and are hurt if they get negative feedback that is too harsh. They like to enter and exit from learning experiences with a polite entry or exit. This was well illustrated by the likely apocryphal story at Apple, when Steve Wosniak showed Steve Jobs the first Apple Mac screen it has a simple command > prompt. Jobs insisted that it said ‘Hello…’. I think we know who won.


These are just a few of the dozens of insights in this extremely worthwhile book, based on real research. It should be a must for anyone involved in producing e-learning content, or otherwise active in media production. 'If the designers of media would only follow their (Nass and Reeves’s) guidance, we would all gain through enhanced social graces in our interactions with media and technology,' says Donald A Norman. It is especially relevant to the rise of AI in learning, where the anthropomorphising of chatbots and AI in general both hinders and helps learning. In fact, AI is competence without comprehension, but the illusion of comprehension can sometimes help with engagement.


Reeves, B. and Nass, C.I., 1996. The media equation: How people treat computers, television, and new media like real people and places. Cambridge university press.
Nass, C., Moon, Y., Fogg, B.J., Reeves, B. and Dryer, C., 1995, May. Can computer personalities be human personalities?. In Conference companion on Human factors in computing systems (pp. 228-229). ACM.

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