DEFINE: Affordance

19 Mar 2008 - 6:57pm
6 years ago
22 replies
2720 reads
Chris Hlavaty
2008

In the discipline of IxD, the word has been used to define a possible
action perceived by a user within some environment (Norman 1988). In the
classic example, the affordance of a door with a flat metal plate is
"push." The affordance resolves to a verb, an action to be performed.

However, of late, I've seen the word used loosely to describe the clues
that suggest an object's possible actions. Applied in a colloquial sense
to the classic example above, the "affordance" is the flat metal plate.
Another example of this usage would be gloss applied to the visual
design of a UI button. The gloss itself is the affordance, as opposed to
the action "click".

I'm curious as to the community's opinion on this matter. How do you use
the word in your day to day discussions? Is it appropriate to use the
term both ways?

Appreciate your opinions,

-- chris hlavaty

Comments

19 Mar 2008 - 9:20pm
Itamar Medeiros
2006

Hi, Christopher! If you think is difficult to define "Affordance",
try to translate it to other languages, like Portuguese!

I've discussed that with my students back in Brazil and in China,
and -- in the translation process -- I came with the idea of
"purpose". But that's just me!

...

{ Itamar Medeiros } Information Designer
designing clear, understandable communication by
caring to structure, context, and presentation
of data and information

website ::: http://designative.info/
mobile ::: 86 13671503252
skype ::: designative

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19 Mar 2008 - 9:23pm
Katie Albers
2005

Because the word has been used increasingly loosely -- as you've
described -- I don't use it any more. When I used it, I wound up
having to go through an explanation of what an affordance really is
-- or why it's different from what they think it means. Not using the
term saves me the Battle of the Competing Definitions...and I wind up
where I want to much more quickly than I otherwise do.

Katie

At 5:57 PM -0700 3/19/08, Christopher Hlavaty wrote:
>In the discipline of IxD, the word has been used to define a possible
>action perceived by a user within some environment (Norman 1988). In the
>classic example, the affordance of a door with a flat metal plate is
>"push." The affordance resolves to a verb, an action to be performed.
>
>
>
>However, of late, I've seen the word used loosely to describe the clues
>that suggest an object's possible actions. Applied in a colloquial sense
>to the classic example above, the "affordance" is the flat metal plate.
>Another example of this usage would be gloss applied to the visual
>design of a UI button. The gloss itself is the affordance, as opposed to
>the action "click".
>
>
>
>I'm curious as to the community's opinion on this matter. How do you use
>the word in your day to day discussions? Is it appropriate to use the
>term both ways?
>
>
>
>Appreciate your opinions,
>
>
>
>-- chris hlavaty
>
>________________________________________________________________
>Welcome to the Interaction Design Association (IxDA)!
>To post to this list ....... discuss at ixda.org
>Unsubscribe ................ http://www.ixda.org/unsubscribe
>List Guidelines ............ http://www.ixda.org/guidelines
>List Help .................. http://www.ixda.org/help

--

----------------
Katie Albers
katie at firstthought.com

20 Mar 2008 - 7:58am
Lon Hetrick
2008

I use it to mean, "the impression an object conveys that it can be
acted on." Very broad and general. The idea is that affordance is a
quality that some objects have that says "touch/manipulate me and
something will happen". This quality is dependent on context.

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20 Mar 2008 - 5:33am
Victor Lombardi
2003

On Wed, Mar 19, 2008 at 8:57 PM, Christopher Hlavaty
<Chrish at artefactgroup.com> wrote:
> In the discipline of IxD, the word has been used to define a possible
> action perceived by a user within some environment (Norman 1988). In the
> classic example, the affordance of a door with a flat metal plate is
> "push." The affordance resolves to a verb, an action to be performed.
>
> However, of late, I've seen the word used loosely to describe the clues
> that suggest an object's possible actions...

Don Norman also saw that discrepancy, and at some point revised it to
"perceivable affordance".

I'll use the word around other designers, but for other audiences I'm
careful to define it as I go.

Victor

20 Mar 2008 - 7:27am
Victor Lombardi
2003

On Thu, Mar 20, 2008 at 7:33 AM, Victor Lombardi
<victorlombardi at gmail.com> wrote:
> Don Norman also saw that discrepancy, and at some point revised it to
> "perceivable affordance".

I just found the link:

Affordances and Design
http://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/affordances_and.html

20 Mar 2008 - 9:04am
Jared Christensen
2008

Chris,

I don't think the second 'definition' you laid out is correct.
Affordance is not an object (metal plate), or a quality assigned to
an object (glossiness); it is the perceived action associated with or
communicated by an object.

I can see where the issue might get confused, and perhaps some
designers just find it easier to explain affordance to clients by
pointing to the glossy shine of a button and saying "This is
affordance. Right here."

Jared

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20 Mar 2008 - 9:14am
Uday Gajendar
2007

I think it's both :-) Affordance is the noun, the perceived clue that
suggests an action (based upon context, situation, goals, etc.).
Afford is the verb, like what does this object afford, or the
particular action the user would perform based upon the clue
perceived. (a chair affords sitting, a window affords looking)

As Paul Dourish says, "Technically, an affordance is a property of the
environment that affords action to appropriately equipped
organisms...an affordance is a three-way relationship between the
environment, organism, and an activity. This three-way relationship is
at the heart of ecological psychology, and the challenge of ecological
psychology lies in how it is centered on the notion of an organism
acting in an environment: being in the world"

(from "Where The Action Is")

Personally, I like to frame affordance as a matter of communication:

"This reflexive relationship [referring to language and interaction]
becomes more evident by looking at the affordances and constraints
upon interaction of everyday real objects. Through affordances a
design speaks to users, provoking or inviting an encounter to ensue.
Its level of success depends on the clarity, appropriateness, and
conceptual linkage of the affordance to the user's goals and
expectations...Affordances are a form of communication, telling the
user what's possible with a design--and constraining him to that
possibility by virtue of materials, mechanics, etc."

(from "Thoughts on Interaction")

Hope that helps...

Uday Gajendar
Sr. Interaction Designer
Voice Technology Group
Cisco | San Jose
------------------------------
ugajenda at cisco.com
+1 408 902 2137

20 Mar 2008 - 11:00am
Mark Schraad
2006

Seriously, this is actually very good...

From wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affordances

An affordance is the quality of an object, or an environment, that
allows an individual to perform action. The term is used in a variety
of fields: perceptual psychology, cognitive psychology, environmental
psychology, industrial design, human–computer interaction (HCI),
interaction design and artificial intelligence.

As explained below, two different definitions have developed. The
original definition describes all action possibilities that are
physically possible; a refinement to that definition describes action
possibilities that the actor is aware of.

Affordances as action possibilities

Psychologist James J. Gibson originally introduced the term in his
1977 article The Theory of Affordances[1] and explored it more fully
in his book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception[2] in 1979.
He defined affordances as all "action possibilities" latent in the
environment, objectively measurable and independent of the
individual's ability to recognize them, but always in relation to the
actor and therefore dependent on their capabilities. For instance, a
set of steps which rises four feet high does not afford the act of
climbing if the actor is a crawling infant. Gibson's is the prevalent
definition in cognitive psychology.

Jakob von Uexküll had already discussed the concept in the early
twentieth century[3], calling it the "functional
colouring" (funktionale Tönung) of objects.

Affordances as perceived action possibilities

In 1988, Donald Norman appropriated the term affordances in the
context of Human–Machine Interaction to refer to just those action
possibilities which are readily perceivable by an actor. Through his
book The Design of Everyday Things,[4] this interpretation was
popularized within the fields of HCI and interaction design. It makes
the concept dependent not only on the physical capabilities of the
actor, but also their goals, plans, values, beliefs and past
experience. If an actor steps into a room with an armchair and a
softball, Gibson's original definition of affordances allows that the
actor may toss the recliner and sit on the softball, because that is
objectively possible. Norman's definition of (perceived) affordances
captures the likelihood that the actor will sit on the recliner and
toss the softball. Effectively, Norman's affordances "suggest" how an
object may be interacted with. For example, the size and shape of a
softball obviously fits nicely in the average human hand, and its
density and texture make it perfect for throwing. The user may also
bring past experience with similar objects (baseballs, perhaps) to
bear when evaluating a new affordance.

Norman's 1988 definition makes the concept of affordance relational,
rather than subjective or objective. This he deemed an "ecological
approach," which is related to systems-theoretic approaches in the
natural and social sciences. The focus on perceived affordances is
much more pertinent to practical design problems from a human-factors
approach, which may explain its widespread adoption.

Norman later explained that this adaptation of the term had been
unintended.[5][6] However, the definition from his book has become
established enough in HCI that both uses have to be accepted as
convention in this field.

On Mar 20, 2008, at 8:04 AM, Jared Christensen wrote:

> Chris,
>
> I don't think the second 'definition' you laid out is correct.
> Affordance is not an object (metal plate), or a quality assigned to
> an object (glossiness); it is the perceived action associated with or
> communicated by an object.
>
> I can see where the issue might get confused, and perhaps some
> designers just find it easier to explain affordance to clients by
> pointing to the glossy shine of a button and saying "This is
> affordance. Right here."
>
> Jared
>

20 Mar 2008 - 12:11pm
Robert Hoekman, Jr.
2005

> I use it to mean, "the impression an object conveys that it can be
> acted on."

I think of it more as "an aspect of a design that communicates how a person
can interact with an object".

-r-

20 Mar 2008 - 1:20pm
Angel Marquez
2008

A property in which the physical characteristics of an object or
environment influence its function.

-Universal Principles of Design

20 Mar 2008 - 2:35pm
christine chastain
2008

I too, have become very careful in the use of the word in general but
I find that in my work, most often the affordance of an object or
experience is, quite simply, the qualities of that object or
experience that permit it to be used in a specific way.

20 Mar 2008 - 7:29pm
Katie Albers
2005

You see, here's the problem...technically an affordance does not
"permit" a certain type of use, but rather makes it clear through the
object's form, location and generally the circumstances of its
existence -- that the object is to be used in a particular way.

That may very well be what you meant, but it's also an excellent
example of why the term is less than perfectly communicative.

Katie
At 1:35 PM -0700 3/20/08, christine chastain wrote:
>I too, have become very careful in the use of the word in general but
>I find that in my work, most often the affordance of an object or
>experience is, quite simply, the qualities of that object or
>experience that permit it to be used in a specific way.

--

----------------
Katie Albers
katie at firstthought.com

21 Mar 2008 - 5:01am
antonio rizzo
2008

The name Affordance (Gibson, 1979), concerns the relationship between
the visuo-motor system of living organisms and the spatio-temporal
distribution of electromagnetic energy to which the different visual
systems are sensible, it has his root in the evolutionary process.
Don Norman (1988) at that time in theoretical disagreement with
Gibson was nevertheless charmed by the essence of the affordance
concept: the electromagnetic distribution of energy have privileged
handling modalities, they afford specific actions. Norman
re-conceptualized the Affordance according to his cognitive
psychology root and made of it part of the answer to his questions of
that days: How do we manage to face a world populated by thousands of
objects that may be we meet only once in our life? When we encounter
an artefact that we never saw before how do we know what it does and
what we can do with it? Affordances belonged to the answer: the
perceptual appearance of a device can provide the proper suggestions
for it use. The relational essence was safe also in the cognitive
perspective.

The Affordance concept got smoothly into the design domain, but far
from being a unitary and unanimous concept it waved between the
Cognitive psychology of Norman and the Ecological psychology of
Gibson. Which is, to me, just the beginning of the story.

The %u201Copportunities for privileged modalities of action for a
given animal%u201D, was a less intriguing aspect of Gibson%u2019s
idea, a more fascinating, specially considering the time it was
proposed (the %u201970), was the collapse of distinction between
perception and action. The end of the distinction between perception
and action is crucial to appreciate properly the Gibsonian concept of
affordance. Let%u2019s see why, and also why this is just the start
of the story up today.

The interaction between the features of the handle with that of the
human visuo-motors system as a whole determine the affordance. When I
grasp the vertical cylindrical bar with the extended arm I am in
propitious condition for pulling, when I put my hand on the flat
horizontal bar it is easier to push. It is straightforward to figure
out that if an handle of given shape and dimension will afford
pulling it will depend from the characteristics of a given person,
that is from her/his height, hand dimension, physical strength, etc.

But we are just facing the first step of a long journey. How does a
phone afford calling? Or, a computer checking mail? The examples
quoting pulling, throwing, falling, concern all actions we can
perform almost since ever (both from a phylogenetic and from an
ontogenetic point of view). The action we perform through the
thousands of artefacts that populate our environment (do you remember
Norman%u2019s questions?) are still rooted in motor acts such as
pushing, grasping, touching, pulling etc. but no one learns about the
external would just learning the motor pattern for typing numbers on
the phone, or the motor pattern for getting a ticket from an
automatic ticket machine, or for stroking on the keyboard of a
computer.

The story goes that in our brain do exist areas dedicated to motor
coordination and even neurons that fires only when a specific motor
patter is executed (motor neuron), but do exists neurons that fires
when we grasp an object with the left hand, with the right hand or
with our mouth. These neurons do not codify movements but goals -
they codify grasping. When they become active, their firing tells to
the individual: %u201Cgrasp%u201D. The discovery of these neurons was
a surprise for the same researchers coordinated by Giacomo Rizzolatti.
The existence of these neurons gave the same ontological dignity to
visual stimuli produced by physical reality, such as the existence of
vertical and horizontal bar in the visual field and to the
psychological construct of the grasping or throwing goals.

To continue in the following post%u2026

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21 Mar 2008 - 5:03am
antonio rizzo
2008

%u2026 following my previous post

Thus, in our brain exists neuron deputed to the coding of objective,
named visuo-motor neuron (which match the intuition of Gibson). But,
for how astonishing was this discovery, it was nothing in respect to
the next step made by the Rizzolatti%u2019s group, that is, the
discovery that some of these neuron does fire not only when the
animal is to perform grasping, but also when the animal see another
individual grasping. These neurons do not tell if the goal-oriented
action is carried out by the individual they belong to or by another
individual, there are sensible just to the goal that has to be
pursued. Rizzolatti named these neurons %u201Cmirror neuron%u201D.
The current interpretation is that mirror neuron allow to an animal
to understand what other individuals are trying to do. When mirror
neuron fires in a %u201Cpassive%u201D way they signal to the organism
the same action that they signal when it is actually carried out. In
this way an individual who observe put herself in the boots of the
real actor of the scene. I understand what another does since this
give rise in me a close neural activity to the one I produce when I
perform that action.

For a fancy introduction to mirror neuron
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sciencenow/3204/01.html

For a proper understanding
Rizzolatti, G. and Craighero, L. (2004). The Mirror-Neuron System.
Annual Review of Neuroscience. vol27: 169%u2013192.

The mirroring process mediated by these neurons allow us to know the
world through the action we can perform in the world, and such
performance would be defined by the intentional states we learn to
generate along our social life, from birth forward.

When children observe other people using cultural tools and
artefacts, they often engage in the process of imitative learning in
which they attempt to place themselves in the %u201Cintentional
space%u201D of the user%u2014discerning the user%u2019s goal, what
she is using the artefact %u201Cfor.%u201D By engaging in this
imitative learning, the child joins the other person in affirming
what %u201Cwe%u201D use this object %u201Cfor%u201D: we use hammers
for hanging frames, a vacuum cleaner to make mommy happy, a
refrigerator to prepare dinner.

As children are involved in such intentional mirroring process they
start to perceive objects and artefacts as elements that evoke,
beyond basic sensory-motor affordances, another set of affordances,
the intentional affordances, as named by Micheal Tomasello. Such
affordances rest upon the understanding of the intentional relations
that other persons have with that object or artefact%u2014that is,
the intentional relations that other persons have to the world
through the artefact. Affordances have a double nature that can be
mutually supported and that is nested in the history of the artefacts
and in their social evolution as well as in the ontogenetic
development of each individual.

Designing intentional affordances means allowing people that are
going to use our new products the production of new intentions and
goals that, perhaps, where not even thinkable before the creation of
the new artefact.

The interplay between sensory-motor and intentional affordances is
an extremely interesting issue both for the cognitive scientist and
for the designer, and the dynamics between them open new spaces for
design that will act at the core of interaction design.

With my colleague (Silvia, Leonardo, Maria) we have experimented both
in establishing affordances for objects in young children (12-18
months) and in adults. You can find a first sketch of these
researches here:

Rizzo, A. (2006).The origin and design of intentional affordances.
Invited Speech
Proceedings of the 6th ACM Cconference on Designing Interactive
systems %u2013. New York: ACM Press

Sorry for the long post,

Ciao

antonio

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20 Mar 2008 - 10:17pm
David Conrad
2008

Just out of sheer curiosity, is that essentially the same as saying,

"A property in which the physical characteristics of an object or
environment {inform the user of} its function."

This seems a little more in-line with Robert's (well-put) definition.

On Mar 20,2008, at 12:20 , Angel Marquez wrote:

> A property in which the physical characteristics of an object or
> environment influence its function.
>
> -Universal Principles of Design
> ________________________________________________________________
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20 Mar 2008 - 9:27pm
Rob Tannen
2006

A little more depth on this topic:

The original meaning of affordance (in the context of Gibsonian
psychology) is a RELATIONSHIP. The relationship exists between an
actor and the environment and/or object.

The classic example is that a chair affords sitting - but that is an
oversimplification. It really about a very specific relationship
meaning a specific chair, affording sitting to a certain actor under
certain circumstances. The same chair that affords sitting to a
small child, may not afford sitting to an adult when it collapses
under the greater weight.

Moreover, the existence of a relationship (affordance) is necessary,
but not sufficient for the perception or ability to act on that
relationship. I don't need to sit or even see the chair for the
affordance of me sitting on that chair to exist.

In fact, strictly speaking, the ability perceive the chair is in
itself the result of an affordance. For example viewability requires
a relationship between the actor (ability to detect optical
information in a certain light spectrum) and the object/environment
(transmitting or reflecting a specific light pattern with a
particular spectrum).

In practical terms, we should be careful in applying the term
"affordance" too broadly. Effective design is about defining the
components of the relationship and then bringing them together in the
most appropriate manner.

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21 Mar 2008 - 8:06am
karine Drumond
2008

""A property in which the physical characteristics of an object or
environment {inform the user of} its function."

So, in practical terms it just reminded of the FOX car (Volkswagen
Brazil) .

..."Accidents occur when a person, instinctively, puts the finger on
the ring of metal. Unlocked, the mechanism pulls the ring with force,
which can cut off your fingertip"...

http://revistaepoca.globo.com/Revista/Epoca/0,,EDG81441-6014-507,00.html

And the worst is ... People tend to blame themselves

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21 Mar 2008 - 7:49am
ScottL
2008

I would agree that the term is less than perfectly communicative but
from my own opinion I think this has come from Normans second
interpretation of the term and where 'perceived affordances' has
dirtied the waters and where Norman has openly admitted that has had
to spend much time in clarifying his own interpretation.

I believe thats where the problems have risen in discipline of IxD
both terms by Gibson and Norman are being used and applied, however I
would always recommend going back to the original term and the
understanding as set out by Gibson, as many a time the term
affordance is used to actually mean symbolic communication.

So I am of the opinion to ever use only one to and to ensure that
that the clarity of the term(it was recommended by a friend to use a
drum to explain the concept too and what a affordances a drum
provides, and move away from a door which I have found helpful in
communicating the idea) as I truly believe affordances can provide a
real insight for designers.

Some really helpful material I have used if your interested further:

Gaver, W. (1996). Affordances for interaction: The social is
material for design. Ecological Psychology, 8(2).

Gaver, W. (1991). Technology affordances. Proceedings of CHI, 1991
(New Orleans, Lousiana, USA, April 28 - May 2, 1991) ACM, New York.

Joanna McGrenere and Wayne Ho (2000)"Affordances: Clarifying and
Evolving a Concept", Graphics Interface, pg "179--186"

The use of affordances by Sellen & Harper in the book the myth of the
paperless office I have also found as a good application of the term
in understanding paper.

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21 Mar 2008 - 9:10am
Matthew Loff
2007

Is it generally accepted that affordance can work in a negative way as
well? I occasionally come across a web site that mixes in some sort of
salient text (usually colored and underlined) that fools me into thinking
they're links, when in fact, they aren't.

I agree with David's definition, but given the frustrating experience I
described, I may tweak it to read:

"A property in which the physical characteristics of an object or
environment allude to a function."

On Fri, Mar 21, 2008 at 12:17 AM, David Conrad <david at designcommission.com>
wrote:

>
> "A property in which the physical characteristics of an object or
> environment {inform the user of} its function."
>
>

21 Mar 2008 - 11:42am
Rob Tannen
2006

On a tangentoal (sp?) note, perceivng affordances where others have
not can be considered a sign of creativity or at least
resourcefulness.

A Core77 posting from last year featured examples of identifying
affordances (although they don't describe it in those terms):

http://www.core77.com/reactor/03.07_parallel.asp

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21 Mar 2008 - 9:53am
ScottL
2008

Would you consider the term defined as

"A property in which the physical characteristics of an object or
environment {inform the user of} its function."

To sufficiently clarify the following ?

-An affordance exists relative to the action capabilities of a
particular actor.
-The existence of an affordance is independent of the actor%u2019s
ability to perceive it.
-An affordance does not change as the needs and goals of the actor
change.

Which is referenced from the paper of McGrenere & Ho (2000)

And I think the FOX car is great example of how design has a need to
fully appreciate the term and understand its application, as users do
blame themselves.

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23 Mar 2008 - 7:41pm
steveg72
2006

> Is it generally accepted that affordance can work in a negative way as
> well? I occasionally come across a web site that mixes in some
> sort of
> salient text (usually colored and underlined) that fools me into
> thinking
> they're links, when in fact, they aren't.

> I agree with David's definition, but given the frustrating
> experience I
> described, I may tweak it to read:
>
> "A property in which the physical characteristics of an object or
> environment allude to a function."

Wikipedia has a reasonable definition: An affordance is a quality of
an object, or an environment, that allows an individual to perform an
action.

JJ Gibson's original use of the term focused on human activity as
well as on the physical characteristics. When we orient ourselves to
our environment we perceive ways in of acting in that environment;
what can be manipulated, walked upon, thrown, etc., what can be
dangerous and what can be used beneficially. The physical
characteristics afford these opportunities for being acting upon,
whether or not the designer of an artifact intended that us. Rob
Tannen's link to a Corte77 posting (http://www.core77.com/reactor/
03.07_parallel.asp) provides excellent examples of how affordances
can suggest unintended, and often creative, uses of an object.

In this framework I would not consider colored/underlined text as
affording navigation or click-ability. Yes, its a learned
association and yes, it can be used inconsistently, but I think
Gibson's intent was to identify something about the relationahip
between the physical world and humans that was deeper than context-
specific learned associations. There is nothing intrinsically
clickable about underlined text as opposed to bold or regular text,
but small round physical objects afford throwing in a way that
transcends context. There was a interesting study of remote controls
conducted years ago in which a candy-bar shaped TV remote was
compared with a spherical TV remote. The candy bar shaped remote
tended to be held by one person, and occasionally passed to another;
the sphere was more spontaneously thrown from one person to another.
There might be novelty effect here, but in the context of this
discussion, the two two shapes afforded different sorts of interactions.

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