Sunday, June 01, 2008

On the notion of affordances

Donald Norman used the notion of affordances for how the nature of things in our environment suggest how we can interact with them.

When things suggest how we can interact with them, it changes how we interact with them. If a door suggests that it is opened by pushing it, we are more likely to try opening it that way. And if things have poor affordances, we're likely to try using them in ways that don't work.

Recently, I used the term in a more general way, to refer to how anything can shape how we perceive, think about things or do things. For example, the character limit on SMS messages shapes the kinds of things we write with them, even though it's quite possible to write email length messages but split them up across multiple texts.

I think the importance of this notion is that, in practice, we don't have absolute autonomy, we aren't simply "in control", and don't simply do things "because we choose to or want to". Nor do we make choices based on all the information; we use heuristics and hints, and what things suggest.

I'm not aware of an existing term for this property of things, and I think affordances fits well.

To illustrate this notion of affordances, here are some recent Paul Graham articles that can be seen in this light:

Cities and Ambition - cities have affordances that shape the amibtions of their citizens, and different cities have different affordances.

Disconnecting Distraction - computer setups have affordances that shape your usage of them, and how much time you waste when you're using them.

Another thing I think is an example of affordances is the notion of framing. That the way you describe something shapes the way people think about it.

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