Perceived affordances

Much of how we interact with the world around us depends upon what is called affordance. Affordance is what psychologist James J. Gibson defined as the total of “action possibilities” inherent in an environment. Or to put it another way: what can I do with the things I see around me? A chair can be sat upon, but it can also be used as an impromptu stepladder or as a clothes horse. The importance of the relationship between environment and user becomes clear if one simply considers the relative size of chairs in a kindergarten class compared to a university lecture hall.  The “affordance” of tiny chairs to adult-sized students is clearly reduced.

            It took Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, however, to highlight key factors that influence how a user might perceive the potential “affordances” of an object. For instance, what a user is aiming to do can have a direct effect on what they perceive an object can do. A car can get one user from point A to point B, but to a homeless person searching for a place to sleep, a car can represent much more than a vehicle. And to a cat being chased by a vicious dog, the car “affords” shelter in an emergency. 

All sorts of considerations can have an impact on just how many possibilities are available to a user. Aspects as varied as gender, culture, economic situation, religious convictions, age and personal history all have an effect on how we interact with our designed environment.  It might seem hard to see how religion, culture, gender and economic situation might have different impacts on user experience. But by simply considering how the design of a Turkish prayer rug, or kelim, might be perceived differently by a female textile collector from Newcastle and by a young recent Muslim immigrant, the differences quickly become apparent.

But these differences do not only pertain to tangible objects around us. In fact it is our interactions with virtual design that are becoming increasingly important in what is known as the “experience economy”.  Key to improving the design of our virtual interactions is to capture information regarding those experiences, creating a feedback loop.   For instance, technology tracing how a visitor arrives to a website, and then moves through the information by clicking on certain links, as well as how long they stay on certain pages and with what outcome, has been available for some time.  For instance, differences in statistics revealing whether potential consumers come from a particular search engine, like Google, or via paid-for advertising, or a blog recommendation can have direct implication on the design of future marketing endeavours.

            Interface design, or the design of a device or program by which a user interacts with a computer, has become a science of its own. One which takes careful consideration of factors such as attention span, visual perception, memory, language, problem-solving and decision-making abilities, and even social psychology. The implications of such factors becomes clear when potential online consumers don’t follow through with purchases because the form is too complicated, or the typeface is illegible, or to complete the purchase they are required to recall information from another page.  Similarly, website managers who pitch their products or services to consumers using a language that is too sophisticated to their potential buyers, or who don’t consider translating texts if dealing with an international clientele may have a similarly negative response.  On the other side of the coin, if potential consumers can anticipate from the website what the requirements might be to complete a purchase, it is more likely to occur. Therefore, designing for consumers with the authority and the ability to make final purchasing decisions is fundamental to creating effective interactive web pages. Furthermore, clever marketers teamed with astute designers can apply methods derived from group psychology to further reinforce potential sales.

            All of these are valid considerations when designing web interfaces for consumer use.

The stakes can be even higher, however, for software (and to some extent, hardware) design, where the success of a product can depend on not only its potential uses, but whether users enjoy the experience. Whether “enjoyment”, here, translates to seeing complex work processes streamlined or whether it’s simply about the fun in sharing photos and news with friends around the globe (think Facebook), the relationship between effectivity and pleasure has intensified as we move into the experience economy. As we spend more and more time communicating with the world, doing our jobs and experiencing our lives through our computers, we increasingly seek out those interactions that increase our enjoyment.

            Few people credited the computer mouse with any sticking power when it was introduced over 25 years ago. But until a few years ago, it was probably one of the most common features on any desk. Design changes that took the mouse from a clumsy single-clicking plastic handful permanently tethered to a hard drive to an ergonomic wireless multi-sided clicking machine often adorned with a scrolling wheel were largely driven by user feedback information. Similarly, information gleaned from user interactions with touch pads has impelled changes in design, as it will with the new sensory detectors recently launched on the market. It won’t be long before we shut down our computers by waving goodbye. Releasing ourselves from the mouse – useful as it once was – is not only a technological advance, but a physical one as well; one that promises a more enjoyable interaction, as well as fuller integration, with our computers.

            Perhaps a good point, then, on which to end this particular discussion of interaction design is in regard to “promises.”  In a recent article called “Tangible possibilities—envisioning interactions in public space”, the authors discuss interaction design’s ability to provide opportunities for conversations between designers and users about our future environments.  If designers and users can discuss, debate, discard and even deploy possible futures by thinking through and projecting some of our current ideas and concerns together through interaction design, then perhaps the future is not only possible, but also promising. 

Frederic Marc


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