Form and affordance

I have learned about the principle of affordances as introduced by Gibson when I started my MA, but I have been quite suspicious about it. Two examples of my own life, make me hesitant to fully inscribe to this idea. I have problems picking up scissors. As a left-handed person I am quite used to them being annoying, and it was rather recently that someone pointed out that the smaller hole is for the thumb and the other one for the other finger. Even though this is meant to guide the hand, it never did for me. It was something to consciously learn. Another problem – maybe even more awkward – is the use of doors. Even after five years in the UK I have problems to distinguish between ‘push’ and ‘pull’. And even thought it is true that a door without a handle lends itself to push, I still have many doors I run into as handles can mean ‘push’  or can mean there are handles on both sides. Even though the handle is more inviting to pull, I have learnt that this is often misleading and do not use it ‘instinctive’ anymore.

James J. Gibsons text on “The theory of Affordances” is often referenced and both admired and rejected in this context. He defines affordances as “a specific combination of the properties of its substance and its surfaces taken with reference to an animal.” (Gibson, 1977, 67) Later on in the text he extends into more detail the different activities that can be afforded with this being the most relevant one in this context: “Moreover the objects of the environment afford activites like manipulation and tool using.” (ibid, 68) He relates the idea of affordances to the biological term of the niche, which he defines not as the habitat of a species, but “how it lives”. (Gibson, 1977, 69) He goes on to define the niche as a “set of affordances”(ibid) into which the animal not only fits because it is suitable, but also because it fits metaphorically. (compare Gibson, 1977, 69)

The point that causes the largest controversy within the discussion around affordances and which will be discussed in the context of this projects, is his claim that affordances are neither “subjective” to the animal, neither “objective” to the object. (Gibson, 1977, 69) He goes on to explain that “The affordances of the environment are facts of the environment, not appearances.” (ibid, 70) Later in the text he distinguishes between the “qualities” of an object and its “affordances” (ibid, 75) In context of everyday design this distinction becomes important as Gibson argues that affordances may be first to notice:

“Nevertheless I suggest that we perceive when we look at them are their affordances, not their qualities. We can, of course, discriminate these dimensional qualities if required to compare them as objects. But the unique combination of qualities that specifies what the object affords us is what we normally pay attention to.” (Gibson, 1977, 75)

This thought is interesting as it emphasises how people make use of objects by looking at how it can be used, rather than how it should be used. When discussing if this is true only for children or also for adults, he specifies that “The meanings are observed before the substances and surfaces are.”

Based on Gibsons work Bozeat (2002, 237) explains two different categories of affordance:

“In recent studies, the term affordance has been used to refer to two
potentially separate mechanisms that support object use directly from visual and/or tactile input. One is problem solving, or reasoning about the use of an object on the basis of its physical characteristics, which will be discussed below. The other is more like the Gibsonian notion of  affordance, in which clues to the hold, orientation, movement, and purpose of an object are systematically related to its physical structure (e.g., if it has a sharp edge, it is used for cutting).”

Greenhalgh add another layer to the qualities an object inherits: the cultural.

“The material features of technologies – dimensions, shape, colour, durability, size of buttons, brightness of screen and so on – have a powerful influence on whether and how technologies are used. But ‘materiality’ also includes sociological implications of these features (Dourish & Mazmaniam, 2011). Digital goods have cultural meaning.” (Greenhalgh, 2013, 87)

Christopher Alexander emphasises the form and the fit as a guiding principle for design: “Indeed, the form itself relies on its inner organization and on the internal fitness between the pieces it is made of to control its fit as a whole to the context outside.” (Alexander, 1967, 18) But he explains that fit is hardly recognized, rather people turn to “misfits” for guidance: “These misfits are the forces which must shape it, and there is no mistaking them. Because they are expressed in negative form they are specific, and tangible enough to talk about.” (Alexander, 1967, 23) He further emphasises that these design problems are interconnected: “This is a typical design problem; is has requirements which have to be met; and there are interactions between the requirements, which makes the requirements hard to meet.” (Alexander, 1967, 2)

In his text he distinguishes “unselfconscious” and “selfconscious” culture, which are distinguished by the way they teach design rules:

“I shall call a culture unselfconscious if its form-making is learned informally, through imitation and correction. And I shall call a culture selfconscious if its form-making is taught academically, according to explicit rules.” (Alexander, 1967, 36)

Design guidelines often motivate the designer to think about affordances and ways in which they can be introduced digitally. But are affordances inherit in material objects? And how does this apply to everyday design? Brandes, Stich and Wender observe 4 categories which influence Non-Intentional Design (NID): form, material, value & dispensability and availability (compare Brandes; Stich; Wender, 2009, 149)

In the context of health and well-being, affordance has slightly different connotations. Bozeat (2002, 237) explains how the term is used to evaluate performance:

“In neuropsychological contexts, affordance has typically been characterized in a post hoc fashion: If a patient’s use of an object is better than would be expected, it is assumed that the physical properties are guiding the patient toward the correct manipulation.”

They conclude suggest in  their findings that “familiarity
is only important in the use of unaffordanced items; for affordanced
objects, there was no influence of familiarity. (ibid. 245)

Analysing requirements in dementia specialised care homes, Topo, Kotilainen and Eloniemi-Sulkava (2012, 120) emphasise the importance of motivation in regards to affordance and define affordances in a very subjective manner:

“A person’s motivation is central to perceiving, uti-lizing, and shaping affordances; for this reason, it is impossible to fully define all the available affor-dances of an environment because they are con-stantly under interpretation.”
They warn against relying to strongly on affordances in the context of dementia:
“Because peo-ple with dementia typically have difficulties with perception, such as perceiving common objects or distances, the possibility of false affordances also needs to be taken into account.” (Topo; Kotilainen; Eloniemi-Sulkava, 2012, 120)
A particular problem has been observed by Nyberg and Starkhammar (2007, 151f): “In a couple of cases, a particular form of directional problem occurred when participants knew which button to push, but were trying to push it in the wrong direction. … This indicated the presence of a spatially related problem even when the objects and the movements were highly familiar.”
A “misfit” in form and therefore in use can leave a technology disabling, as observed e.g. by Greenhalgh (2013, 88):
“A familiar technology is ‘ready-to-hand’, backgrounded and available to mediate between the individual and the world when picked up and used by the skilled human actor. But if the technology does not ‘work’ as intended, it loses its phenomenological transparency and begins to interfere with the individual’s relationship to the world.”
This idea leads to the relationship between the body and technologies and further to questions about embodiment and the idea of the cyborg.

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