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Published by Robert R. Wadholm

A critical synopsis of affordances comparing Gibson's (1979) and Norman's (1988) analyses.

A critical synopsis of affordances comparing Gibson's (1979) and Norman's (1988) analyses.

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Published by: Robert R. Wadholm on Feb 03, 2013
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Bob Wadholm, Missouri University, 2013 The term “affordance” was coined by James J. Gibson (1979) to describe an ecological approach to cognition, and has found its way into the field of Human Computer Interaction (HCI) through the work of Donald Norman (1988). Gibson’s idea was a simple one: an affordance is the possibility for action that exists in an individual’s environment (see Figure 1). For instance, Billy is in a room with a red chair. The chair has the affordance of being sat upon by Billy. Sitting is the action that is possible with the object (the chair) by the individual (Billy) in that environment (the room with the chair).

Figure 1. Model of Gibson’s affordances. Norman situated this idea in the area of design by elaborating on the concept of affordance as being the actual and/or perceived properties that regard how a thing can be used (1988). Things have properties of being used in certain ways.

Wadholm 2 Buttons can be pushed. We may also perceive or fail to perceive what actions can be done to or with an object. Maybe the button does not look like a button, so we fail to perceive that we can push it. Or perhaps the button looks like a button, but we fail to perceive that it is not meant to be pushed (it explodes if we touch it). The action/output is unperceived, but the object still has an affordance. The trick in design is to make sure the affordances are perceived. Use of “affordances” in the HCI literature generally follows Norman’s formulations, seeing affordances as “attributes of objects that allow people to know how to use them” (Rogers, 2004, p. 100), or as the way things are structured that invite people to do things (Kirsh, 2001), or the number of possible actions that can be hierarchically categorized (Vincente, 1995; Vincente & Rassmussen, 1990). Gaver splits affordances into perceptible, hidden, and false affordances: perceptible affordances are readily perceived, hidden affordances are not perceived, and false affordances are personal misconstruals of what a thing can do (1991) (see Figure 2). Norman later updated his view of affordances as he saw it being misused in HCI (Rogers, 2004, p. 101): physical objects (such as a physical button) have real affordances that are readily perceived and are not learned. In contrast, screen-based objects have only perceived affordances (based on learned conventions and feedback).

Wadholm 3 Figure 2. Affordance matrix from Soegaard (2010) and Gaver (1991). What Norman seems to ignore is that humans must also learn what actions are possible with physical objects and must have experience and/or learning before they are able to “readily perceive” a physical object’s affordances. A person who has never seen a button before will not necessarily readily perceive that a physical button can be pushed. Further, I would argue that things do not have properties (actual or perceived) that regard how they can be used. Teleologically, human artifacts may have purposes—designs for action, which may or may not be easily perceived. But that design/purpose is not a property of the object itself: it is rather interconnected qualities of form (like complexity and elegance), function, agent(s), and environment. A chair does not have a property of being able to be sat upon. Rather, it is designed to have qualities that make it possible for an individual in a certain environment to sit on it. Here Gibson’s view of affordances is much more philosophically tenable than either Norman’s early or late views.

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Gaver, W. (1991). Technology affordances. In Proceedings of the CHI, pp. 79–84. ACM Press: New York. Gibson, James J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin. Kirsh, D. (2001). The context of work. Human-Computer Interaction, 6(2), 306–322. Norman, Donald. (1988).The psychology of everyday things. New York: Basic Books. Rogers, Yvonne. (2004). New theoretical approaches for human-computer interaction. Annual Review of Information Science and Technology, 38(1), 87– 143. Soegaard, Mads. (2010). Affordances. Retrieved 30 January 2013, from http://www.interaction-design.org/encyclopedia/affordances.html Vincente, K. J. (1995). A few implications of an ecological approach to human factors. In J. Flach, P. Hancock, J. Carid, & K. J. Vincente (Eds.), Global perspectives on the ecology of human-machine systems, pp. 54–67. Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum. Vincente, K. J., & Rassmussen, J. (1990). The ecology of man-machine systems II: Mediating “direct perception” in complex work domains. Ecological Psychology, 2, 207–249.

Boy: public domain license, from http://pixabay.com/en/black-small-outline-peopleboy-28732/. Red chair: public domain license, from http://pixabay.com/en/red-desk-chaircartoon-couch-seat-33978/

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