Making a task difficult: evidence that device-oriented steps are effortful and error-prone.



Errors in the execution of procedural tasks can have severe consequences. Attempts to ameliorate these slip errors through increased training and motivation have been shown to be ineffective. Instead, we identified the steps in a task procedure on which errors are most likely to occur, so that these might be designed out of the task procedure in the first place. Specifically, we considered whether device-oriented steps (i.e., steps in the task procedure that do not directly contribute to the achievement of the task goal) are more error-prone than task-oriented steps (i.e., steps that do directly contribute to the task goal). Two experiments are reported in which participants were trained to perform a novel procedural task. Across conditions, we manipulated the extent to which each step in the task procedure appeared to contribute to the achievement of the task goal (i.e., alternating the assignment of a task step between device- and task-oriented), while keeping the interface and underlying task procedure the same. Results show that participants made more errors and took longer to complete a task step when it played a device-oriented role rather than a task-orientated role. These effects were exacerbated by the introduction of a secondary task designed to increase working memory load, suggesting that when a task step plays a device-oriented role it is more weakly represented in memory. We conclude that device-oriented task steps are inherently problematic and should be avoided where possible in the design of task procedures.