On defining digital affordances

Affordances.  Credit: http://www.infragesics.com

At VCU Academic Learning Transformation Lab, we tend to use the word “affordance”  – as in the “affordances of the open web” a lot.

I’m not sure if I ever asked (or researched) what that word meant when I joined the team.  Rather, like most things ubiquitous to our environments, I figured it out along the way.  However, I was recently asked by a non-ALT Labber to explain “affordances” and I did, but the question was enough to trigger some research and reflection on what the term means and how it is important in the context of digital pedagogical design.

Affordances was originally coined by perceptual psychologist, James Gibson, in the late 1970s.  Gibson argued that how a person perceives the environment will always lead to some action.  The environment’s affordances act like clues or prompts, indicating or shaping potential pathways for the person’s action.  In social constructivist terms, this is kind of like saying your family, race, class, gender, culture, and institutional affiliations shape or impact the questions you ask and the opportunities you have. However, unlike social constructivists, Gibson kept it simple and direct: to him, affordances were things that are perceived in immediate sorts of ways like buttons for pushing and knobs for turning.

More evidence that ALT Labbers (including our boss, Jon Becker) use the word “affordances” a lot.

Norman (1988) riffed on Gibson’s original work to suggest that affordances are actually not just characteristics of the environments, but relationships between the world and the person.  While Gibson focused on the physical or “real” aspects of the affordance (The ball is round – round is an affordance), Norman argued that, while it may be important that the ball is round (an “actual affordance“) it may be just as important that the person encountering the ball has a past experience of bouncing things like balls.  Bounceability is a “perceived affordance” of the ball.  In this scenario, balls are for bouncing.  You see a ball, you opt to bounce it.  You do not necessarily consider using it as a doorstop or a means to flatten a bug or a stool (all things afforded by a ball; trust me, I know).

When I use affordances to describe digital environments, I probably am using a broader interpretation than initially described by  Norman or Gibson.  For example, I suspect their definitions would be limited to “click here” buttons.  For me, affordances are any property that impacts the range of user experience. Think of it as a social constructivist approach to affordances.

To my mind, my public blog has certain affordances that make it more useful than a learning management system or paper-based writing.  Here are some examples:

  • This blog site is mine. Therefore, I control its content and when I choose to access it.
  • My blog is public, meaning I have to opportunity to write for an authentic audience beyond the scope of my physical environment
  • My blog allows comments, meaning I have the opportunity for social interaction & feedback.
  • It’s digital which means I can delete and edit at will.
  • I can tag and categorize.
  • I can engage in multimodal communication.
  • I can hyperlink and because it’s open, it’s easy to hyperlink to whatever I please.

It’s important to note that just because affordances are available, students do not necessarily know that they are available nor do they always choose to use them.  I can choose to write a private blog post.  I can turn off comments (or choose to moderate them).  I can write as much as I desire without incorporating a hyperlink or an image.  The point is that I would not even have those choices to consider in other types of more traditional environments.  Here, it’s a choice.  However, if I choose NOT to leverage the affordances of my chosen media, I might be suiting my purpose for those particular projects, but  I could just as easily be writing in a spiral notebook.

But what if my failure to leverage the affordances of the open web isn’t an intentional choice, but rather a result of not knowing about (or not knowing how to use or failing to understand the impact of) the digital affordances of the open web?   Much of this feeds into the idea of usefulness versus usability.  And much of it relates to Norman’s idea that how people perceive an object (from past experience, for example), impacts how they choose to use it in the present.

How do we, as openly networked connected educators working in open digital spaces, overcome learners’ previous experiences in learning management systems or previous experiences with the Internet?*  What if we start with this statement:

According to Universal design for learning (UDL) good designs are those which make affordances explicit.  

Norman suggests there are four ways to help learners recognize and engage with new-to-them affordances.

  • Follow conventional usage.  Recognizing that most people will start by using new systems in the same ways as they used old systems is essential to maintaining your sanity. The more critical piece to the puzzle is helping them recognize what they are doing and helping them move beyond it.  Talking about conventional usage (say, past experience in a learning management system), being explicit about the affordances of each setting, showing how they overlap and differ may be helpful strategies.  The point is to BE EXPLICIT.
  • Annotate  affordances. Show new learners where things are on a page (such as the categories or tags options) and then write (or add video thumbnails or audio)- right there on the sample page – annotating why they should consider using this affordance or that one.
  • Use a metaphor. For example, in explaining affordances to my colleague, my discussion of LMS and open web digital affordances was helped mightily by the door knob-door pull metaphor referenced at the top of the page.
  • Follow a coherent conceptual model.  I like to think that all my conceptual models are ridiculously coherent; regardless of your thoughts about that, I always pull out a conceptual model or two when explaining “why” the open web.  Just check out this slideshow. You’ll see conceptual models everywhere.

Just some thoughts.

*For the record, sometimes we aren’t “overcoming” previous experience; rather, we are identifying and leveraging previous experience.  However, that’s a different blog post.

10 Comments Add yours

  1. The Norman thing adds some complexity to the word/idea for me as it seems one’s past experience with something (like the ball example) could end up limiting you as well helping you (which is weird for a word like ‘affordances’). I want to know that balls are often used for bouncing but I don’t want that to limit my conception of the possibilities. Balls might also make good weapons, or bearings, some balls won’t bounce, or balls could be used in lots of other ways (although probably not as door stops).

    I think that kind of thing often ends up pre-limiting technology options. You have to call a range of possibilities something finite enough to talk about it (say . . . maybe you use the word blog) but in doing so you immediately limit a person’s ideas around what it can/should do. It’s a ball. It’s for bouncing. It’s a blog. Welcome to my cat journal.

    There’s also some extension into the idea of umwelt that meshes with this too but affordances is probably hard enough to explain by itself.


    1. Laura Gogia says:

      Exactly, Tom. After I published this last night, I suddenly remembered the phenomenologists and all their talks of tables. Our perception of the table is MORE than the affordances of the table (a smooth, flat surface); we bring history – personal and cultural – that imbues that table with certain expectations of activities. A writing table is for writing. An eating table is for eating. To be innovative in how we use things, we almost need to bracket all those expectations and look anew at the affordances in front of us. However, bracketing requires an explicit conversation about our foregone conclusions so that we can acknowledge them and put them aside. There’s a lot of metacognition that has to go into this :). And I’ll be checking out umwelt in a minute. That’s a fascinating word…


  2. francesbell says:

    “good designs are those which make affordances explicit” when I read that I thought about the ways in which affordances are not made explicit. Social networking sites are generally pretty good at user interface design because they need to pull in members and make it easy for the to post and share multimedia. But they also use a bit of sleight of hand to achieve their goals. For example, they change defaults to make stuff more public without action by members.
    Many of the lovely user-centred design ideas from the 1980s assumed design to achieve explicit goals. There might be gaming around the sales process (adding extra features to attract buyer rather than deliver useful functionality) but what we have now is a bit different eg algorithmic streams


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