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Why don’t women get drag-and-drop?

I have noticed over the past few years that new or novice computer users that fail in certain types of drag-and-drop operations are overwhelmingly female. This is purely anecdotal, and I may be suffering from confirmation bias, but I find this an interesting path of investigation. Hopefully someone out there can draw some light on this topic.

Advanced D&D

Typical drag-and-drop operations involve clicking and dragging one object (eg. a file) onto another object (eg. a folder). When the dragged object is correctly positioned over the target object, the pointer usually displays a “+” symbol and the target object is highlighted. It is critical that the mouse pointer is on top of the target object before releasing the mouse button.

New users often find this final point challenging, particularly when dragging large objects to smaller ones. For example, when dragging an image from Safari to a folder on the desktop Mac OS X represents the dragged image at full size and half opacity. If the image is large, new users might let go when they perceive a part of the image touching the target object, letting go of the mouse button too early and failing the operation. Users concentrate on the position of the dragged object on screen, rather than the position of the pointer. It only takes a moment to — ahem — “point out the pointer“ to the new user and they get it.

I am not sexist

So why is it that I am always pointing this out to female users? Like I said before, this is simply anecdotal so I tried to find some proper research.

A cursory search on the internet did not bring up any specific research, but I did find this study on large, hi-res displays which suggests some gender bias in clicking and drag-and-drop skills. According to the study’s findings, in a clicking task males performed 8% faster (on average 3.1 seconds faster) than women (pp. 6), and in a drag-and-drop task males performed 12% faster (13.7 seconds) (pp. 7). The study was not directly about gender bias in drag-and-drop operations, but the data suggested something is going on.

Does it matter (you sexist)?

As someone with (somewhat of) a cognitive science background, I find this line of inquiry a potential window into the structure and operation of the human brain, particularly the differences between male and female brains. Is it related to differences in spatial cognition? Does interacting with a touch interface elicit the same responses? Had women a dominant role in the computer industry during the genesis of the GUI, would they have designed drag-and-drop differently? What other gender biases are there in usability?

I can only hope there is a graduate student out there looking for a usability or cogsci thesis topic, and has the spare time and funding to tackle these burning questions.

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