Forget Affordances? Not so fast….

In Don Norman’s influential book ‘The Design of Everyday Things’ he introduced the term ‘Perceived Affordance’ (referred to as affordance) to the design community. At the time it was necessary to give a name to a fundamental aspect of their work, namely how do you communicate to a person the intended use of an object?

What is a perceived affordance?

An affordance, in design speak, is a property of an object that implies how it can be used. For example, the design of a chair affords: sitting on, being used for support when standing and standing on. These are some (not all) of the things you can do (actions) with a chair because of the way it was designed.

However, affordances still exist even if it’s not intended by the designer at all. Take an instance of a chair with wheels, the chair still affords standing on, it has height, is sturdy and has a large, flat seating area. The inclusion of the wheels make standing unsafe, the affordance is still present but that particular use is not intended.

From the moment Don introduced the term it took on a life of its own, as Don himself describes:

“When I introduced the term into design in 1988 I was referring to perceivable affordances. Since then, the term has been widely used and misused. The result has been confusion…”

The misuse lays in the problem that affordances are all the possible actions a person can take with an object, not just the designed/intended action. For example a tablet computer screen affords tapping. The inclusion of an icon (as a clue to where you tap to launch an application) does not create the affordance; it’s the properties of a tablet screen that does.

Now, 25 years later, Don has called to retire the term affordance, instead we should use signifier. Signifier more accurately describes how a designer lets a person know what to do (rather than what’s possible) by providing a clue to the desired action.

Continuing the example above the application icon is a signifier, as it indicates where on the screen you should tap to launch the app. You can’t launch that app by tapping on any other area of the screen.

You may be thinking that affordance is now a redundant principle of interaction design. I disagree, affordances are still important because of the metaphors we use.

When we choose a metaphor to represent our systems conceptual model we inherit the schema of that object. We automatically create in the user’s mind a set of possible actions.

What’s a Schema?

Schemas allow us to acquire new information quickly and efficiently by liking it to some other information already stored in memory. For example, I can describe a Zebra to someone who has never seen one as a Horse with black and white stripes. The Horse schema, if known, will allow that person to use any information they have about Horses and apply that to the Zebra. You would then know that a Zebra is black and white has: hooves, mane, tail, eats grass, and is about 5ft tall.

The downside to schemas is that they can allow for the memorisation of incorrect or incomplete information, if a person’s only experience of a horse is of the miniature variety, they will incorrectly remember that all Zebras are only 3ft tall

When computer engineers used the concept of a filing system as the way to represent stored files on a computer hard disc, they had to ensure (amongst other things) that files and folders could be easily added, renamed, moved and deleted, this is because these are some of actions available when using actual folders and files I.e. Someone who uses paper files, and folders can: label and relabel them, add additional files to existing folders and rearrange them. They can add addition files to cabinet drawers and they can throw away old files and folders. A person who uses a filing system will have expectations based upon the use and available actions of the real world counterpart.

If we don’t take time to understand the available actions of real world objects, it’s possible that we could miss a vital action which would ultimately cause frustration for the person using the system.

It seems unlikely to me that the originators of the modern file system considered the affordances of physical file and folders when designing the system. It is most likely that they were more concerned with the available restricted space on the hard disc. Had they taken time to understand the possible actions inherent in the metaphor they chose, then we might not have had an operating system that only allows filenames with 8 characters, as we did with DOS based systems.

It is still essential then for designers to understand affordances, so that they hone their ability to look at the world in terms of the available actions. Then, when choosing metaphors to represent our systems we can ensure that we have full understanding of what actions should be made available or not.

Random thoughts about UX and Business

I think i might have been in a bad mood when i wrote this.

  • Digital’ is not an abstract goal. It’s a essential business function. Your customer want to use your products or services at a time, location and through a channel that suites them. Which are the appropriate platforms to achieve this? 
  • Usability is not optional. It’s an essential part of a professional development process. As tools, interaction design practice and technology use matures the innate level of usability will increase. Only focusing on tactical usability issues to meet customer needs will eventually hit the law of diminishing returns, It will cost more to identify usability issues versus the expected return. 
  • People adapt. If a person believes a product will help them achieve their goal they will endure hell on earth to get it. (Remember the queues outside your local apple store on launch day, or when the last Harry Potter book was release, or trying to program your video player to record a show while you’re out?) So why don’t your customer want your product? 
  • Customer expectations change faster than your ability to keep up. Designing to meet needs enables your product or service to stay relevant for longer. 
  • Your current products might not meet the customer’s need – people may use your product, but you won’t build lasting relationships if it doesn’t help a customer to achieve their goal. As soon as something comes along that does meet their goal then your customer will be off.

How are tablets used?

Luke Wroblewski reported on his website that most tablets are used in the home, rather than in a truly mobile context. In the same article he links to a google blog post that says the majority of the time, 91%, “people spend on their tablet devices is for personal rather than work related activities”

This chimes with my experience of tablet devices, on the 20th June I commented on this via twitter:

20 Jun Matt Goddard ‏@godd4rd
Every morning, on the train I take a mental snapshot of all the devices people use in my carriage.

20 Jun Matt Goddard ‏@godd4rd
Obviously the ubiquitous iPhone, iPad (although I hardly ever see anyone “working” on an iPad).

20 Jun Matt Goddard ‏@godd4rd
Lots of Android phones and a few tablets but again hardly anyone “working” on them.
However, I do see loads of people working on their laptops (mainly PC)…

Leading me to say,

“That’s why I’m so excited about the Surface tablet.”

Considering Wroblewski’s article and my own observations, I have the following thoughts:

  1. Currently tablets (most predominantly iPad, but Android too) are marketed as leisure companions, so it’s not surprising that most people use them in leisure activities.
  2. The tablets currently available don’t integrate very well with most standard work tasks. They are brilliant at reviewing tasks, but when it come to creating documents, diagrams, and interfacing with internal bespoke system they are severely lacking. Some reasons for this are:
    1. Platform issues, iOS (OS X) and Android are not the predominant platform for the enterprise, making it expensive to integrate tablet apps into a complete workflow.
    2. Application issues: MS Office, is the predominant business tool. For any tablet to integrate itself into someone’s work flow, It should, at the very least, read and write properly to office format without any font, or display corruption. Something which neither Pages or Google Docs did the last time I used them.
    3. Tablets are design in the most part to accept touch input, which makes some task more difficult to achieve, especially when fine manipulation skills are needed (such as creating diagrams in omnigraffle, or visio).

On the whole I expect the migration from laptop to tablets as the primary “mobile” computing device. Employees want good, well designed tools (a triumph for the Apple way), but they also need to get their work done.

Tablet manufacturers and application designers must now shift their gaze to the enterprise. They must understand their employee task flows, and how they currently use (or are likely to use) multi-devices to get things done.

The tablet market place is maturing, but it will only make it successfully out of adolescence once it realises that you only finally grow up, when you go out to work and earn your living.

Thoughts: Envisaging “Personal Media”

Like most people my phone is the centre of my technical world but currently it’s a passive tool; for it to support me, I have to initiate the interaction. i.e. check my calendar etc.

For my phone to work better as part of a distributed cognitive system, it needs to integrate in to my life. It must pro-activly support remembering people and places and use that information to create an intervention designed to support me being a better version of myself.

(Note: i say support, rather than automate)

How could you envisage a solution that can know from my location and time, that the train i wanted to get is delayed, or that i’m going to miss it. What are my options to arrive at my destitation at the right time? If i can’t, how can it support me to let my friends/work colleagues know that i’ll be late for an appointment, or that i’Ill miss dinner?

How smart should it be? Could it know that I have awful reception for most of my 1 hour train journey and let people know i’m “unavaliable” for the hour?

A system such as this is not a broadcast tool. It’s a support tool, designed to allow me to manage my hectic world. I want it to understand and act like me but not to be me. I want it to support me being the best version of myself: aware, thoughtful and conscious of the space, time and contexts I operate in.

Disruptive thinking is an essential UX Skill.

We are at a cross-road in the way we do business; the landscape has changed beyond all recognition in the last 15 years due to a perfect storm of influences.

The mass adoption of the internet has provided immediate access to information and a wider choice of products and services, pushing our customers to expect more from us. They now expect products and services which are tailored to them, accessible at a time, location and through a device or channel that suites them. Anything short of that is inconvenient and your competitors are only a few clicks away.

At same time the unreliable, not-good-enough technologies and infrastructure of the past have matured and are now: stable, cheap and easy to implement. Allowing competitors to finance and launch new products and services in months rather than years.

The only way to survive is to adapt to this new world, to think differently from your competitors. To understand: why your customers really buy your products and services, why they reject them and then to select the right product, technology and business processes to give it to them.

Disruptive innovation (which I refer to as disruptive thinking) gives focus to this customer need, and coupled with some UX activities provides the agility to design innovative, customer focused product propositions. Allowing you to pick off your competitors one by one; regardless of whether you’re an internet start-up or multinational corporation.

Disruption is coming to every industry and if you’re not in the game, you might as well pack up and go home, just ask Kodak.

The problem is that the UX industry is still maturing; it is still to become a proactive partner in this process. Currently companies hire UX companies or consultants to address tactical goals to design or optimise their website to: increase sales, reduce costs and improve customer satisfaction. These companies have already identified an immediate need and are focused on delivering against those goals. UX is seen a function of the product delivery process. Don’t believe me? Then take a look at the variety of different job specs and associated job titles, most of these are delivery focused.

The solution is for UX to reach out from the delivery process, to become part of the business development process. Disruptive thinking gives us permission to do this, it allows us to flip things on their head to not only ask how do people use our products and service, but why?

By asking why we can help our clients to uncover new growth opportunities, to create new products and services or enhance existing ones. Helping them to move their business in new directions to meet untapped customer needs.

For example,

A client sells home entertainment system through an online product catalogue and they’ve noticed that 30% of customer will add different product combinations to their shopping basket and leave without purchasing. They’ve asked you to analyse the shopping basket and purchasing funnel to improve the sales conversion rate.

Tactical thinking:

  • Observe customer using the site and look for obstacles to completion.
  • Redesign the shopping basket and optimise the funnel to improve conversion.

Disruptive thinking

  • Why aren’t people completing the purchase?
  • If they aren’t using the shopping cart to buy things then what are they using it for?
  • Is it to:
    • Gauge the cost of a future purchases?
    • To create a wish list?
    • To understand the aggregated costs of a complex purchase
  • Can we use this insight to create new opportunities to increase sales, reduce cost and improve customer satisfaction?
  • Could we create a home entertainment configuration tool that groups individual elements together in one package for different configurations, room sizes and budgets? Would this increase customer satisfaction by reducing the mental effort for choosing individual elements, while realising a higher profits for the company through predefined bundles?

Disruptive thinking in practice

Here are some retrospective examples from my work on how disruptive thinking could be used to create new opportunities:

Our online purchase funnel for insurance isn’t converting enough people, how do we improve it?

  • Tactical – What are users doing through the purchasing funnel, how do we identifying the functional barriers to completing and optimise the customer journeys to reduce the abandonment rate.
  • Disruptive thinking – What do people buy this insurance for? Does our product meet those needs? What would a product look like that does meet those needs?

Our telephone health information line is costing too much to run, how can we move this to a lower cost digital channel?

  • Tactical – how can we design and build a website which provides access to high quality health information.
  • Disruptive thinking – Why do people choose a ‘less convenient’ route to get this information (rather than through the current website or Google)? What support do they get on the phone that they don’t get via the web? What tools could we provide to the call handler to make this process more efficient? What tools do we need to develop to support customer in finding the information they need through existing information resources such as Google?

By asking “why?” we can then use usability testing, contextual enquiries, focus groups and other UX activities to uncover the unmet needs by observing the workarounds, and compensating behaviour that highlights the gaps and creates opportunities for growth, and product innovation.

The UX profession also has the skill to visualise the solution by creating interactive prototypes or product mock-ups to iteratively test and validate the new proposition at relatively low cost. Ensuring that the customer’s needs are being met.


Disruptive thinking allows companies to find new growth opportunities, by understanding what customers use their products and services for. User Experience allows us to uncover those opportunities, and to provide a rapid mechanism designing and testing them.

Further Reading

Revolutionise the classroom?

The oft cited Steve Jobs autobiography described his desire to revolutionise learning and on the 19 Jan 2012 apple made their first move.

There Apple released the iTunesU and iBooks 2.0 apps, which  have been re-imagined for assisting classroom learning. That, alongside some worldwide strategic partnerships with several education publishing giants.

The event was the start of a strategy but what is it?

My view, based upon what was shown, is that the strategy is to give people a more convenient excuse to buy an iPad.

You can imagine the conversation:

  • Kid: Hey dad I *really* need an iPad.
  • Dad: What on earth for?
  • Kid: Apple have launched a new digital text book service which means I can study better and get a real boost in class.

The conversation will go on and on. In the end parental guilt will be invoked, and before you know it, dad will go to the Apple Store and buy the kid a new iPad; an iPad that will be used for everything else besides learning.

I’m reminded of the effort my friends and I expended to try to convince our parents that we needed a PC, or laptop for the exact same reason.

Sure, they were used for learning at first but inevitably they were used for other things. So is the destiny of the iPads bought to aid learning, eventually they will be used primarily to check email/Facebook/twitter, play games, watch films and listen to music.

I’m a passionate believer that technology can and does enhance our lives, and I honestly believe that there is a technology mix that will revolutionise the classroom but I can also say with certainty that what apple have announced so far will fall far short of that.

There problems to overcome are structural and behavioural.

Firstly, financially schools can not afford to provide an iPad for every student or even “one book for one student”  if they are to continue to provide the same level of student resources they do now. Currently, they buy books in bulk and recycle them between classes and school years. This keep costs down, allowing the school to provide equitable study resources to their students. The current commercial business model used by both Apple and Amazon are not inline with the financial realities of schools. Both need to look at a lending/leasing model, and to ownership transfer between devices. As this will give school the greatest flexibility on purchasing.

If schools are not going to provide the same level of resources they do now, then we have to accept that the classroom will become inequitable by design. Those with money will have access to higher quality resources than those without. Those without will continue to fall behind as the responsibility for provisioning learning materials moves from the school to the home.

Secondly there is currently an adequate solution. Classroom/textbook based learning is supplement by the internet. In the most part these resources are free, and just as immersive as anything that can be currently provided by an eBook. Essentially there is no incentive (in terms of lack of alternatives or not good enough solutions) to motivate the adoption of the technology as is.

Thirdly, provision of learning materials to be used out of class is problematic. In class students are forced to focus on the activity at hand. Out of the classroom, there are many more demands on their time, so students tend to cram and crib. It’s hard to imagine that any student (except for the highly motivated) will revisit a full or partial class lecture in their own time. However, iBooks does have an good enough solution, it allows a student to aggregate their notes as a single document (anchored to the page/text the note was attached to) which can be used speed up homework tasks. The problem is that apple is competing with a pervasive low cost existing technology, a notepad and pen!.

Over the past year I have delivered several business, web development, and programming focused lectures at several different schools. Each time I offer follow up, out of class, help and additional reading materials and as yet I’ve not had one student contact me outside of class. Perhaps I’m a poor teacher, or I explained everything so well that there was no need to follow up but having discussed this with friends and more broadly with teachers I see the same pattern emerge. Out of class a students priorities is elsewhere.

Lastly, i have no reason to suppose that the content producers will make the best of use of the technology provided. You only have to look at the eBook/enhanced eBooks currently available through iBooks and Kindle to see on the whole a striking lack of quality.

I read a lot of non-fiction eBooks via iPhone, iPad and Kindle (over 100 books in the past year) and i’m constantly frustrated with the poor quality. Tables aren’t displayed correctly,  images are two small and don’t scale when zoomed in, words are broken in the wrong places.

In my experience (and only in my experience) the production process isn’t mature enough to provide the fully immersive experience envisaged.

If this technology is to be used in the classroom to stream learning, so that the teacher can focus on the people with the greatest need (be it the worst or highest performing students) then what will the middle tier students loose through the poor production quality? More broadly, How will the transfer in responsibility for teaching (from teacher to interactive text book) effect the teachers, who’s role will become more akin to support then leading the learning experience?

There are massive opportunities to revolutionise the classroom: You can: restructure the learning environment to take into account the latest understanding about how students learn, use assistive technology to help students focus on work and remember things. Also there is definitely a place for more immersive technologies that can be bring alive learning materials, videos, audio, slideshows etc. but the adoption of these approaches shouldn’t be based upon the use of exclusive, expensive proprietary platforms.