Where have all the affordances gone?

What’s worse than understanding a lot of crap on the screen? Memorizing a lot of crap that isn’t. Bring back affordances. The essence of the graphical user interface was not graphic design by graphic designers for graphic designers. It was to enable and empower users to interact with computers by way of visual representation of the functionality and the means to interact with it.

Why am I seeing a loss of affordances everywhere and a surge in reliance upon guesswork and memorization for successful interaction?  Affordances are of course, those cues built in to the design of things that offers me clues as to what it is and how I am to interact with it.  We depend on these things to get through the day.  More and more these things are aspects of software.  So, why are these things disappearing? Sigh. It’s a case of minimalists vs. simpletons.

Invisibility is an effect to be achieved when the user is put in touch with the subject matter to the extent that the user’s awareness of the UI itself fades.  This is a form of minimalism and is not a new idea.  I recall news anchor, Jim Lehrer weighing in on design in an article in ID magazine in the late 80s. He defined the best design as invisible, citing the example of the suit he is wearing on the News Hour not detracting from the subject matter of the news.  Obviously that idea is lost on this generation of news anchors, Robin Meade, Soledad O’Brien, or the Fox & Friends guys, etc.

A gross fallacy is to think that this effect of invisible design is achievable simply by removing anything visible of the UI.  That would be Simpleton design.

This new modernist movement contains all of the truth and fiction of previous ones.  Designers will play Jenga with design, removing pieces until it all comes crashing down, then start putting some pieces back until it is stable once again.  It is actually a pretty good exercise, but a painful one to put users through.

Einstein’s advice to “Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler” can be violated either of two ways. Trading one mistake for the other is not really much of an improvement.

– roger

4 thoughts on “Where have all the affordances gone?”

  1. It’s amazing to see the affordances that technology offers these days, I hope teachers would not forget to explain or at least shed a bit of light on the concept of simulation that underpins these tools. We don’t want to see a politician or urban planner some 10 to 20 years down the track, making critical decision based on their ‘simulated’ experience naively think that the programmed algorithm under the hood of the simulation tool equal to facts of natural phenomena. Proper explanation about what is the meaning of assumption and how things might be different in reality compared to simulated world could be very crucial.

  2. This is one of the seminal works in the field of User Centered Design. Norman wrote this book well before the Windows operating system was as familiar as the Golden Arches–which only reinforces the idea that certain basic usability principles transcend all forms of objects–from glass doors to Windows Explorer. Norman does a great job of describing why and how we successfully and unsuccessfully use everyday objects with relevant anecdotes. His stories are usually accompanied with lists of principles that explain good design and account for human behavior. For example, the fundamental principals of designing for people are to: Provide a good conceptual model, make controls visible and to constantly provide feedback to the user. So how does one employ good user-centered design? Norman recapitulates his points at the end of the book by listing the seven UCD principles for transforming difficult tasks into easy ones:1. Use both knowledge in the world and in the head 2. Simplify the structure of tasks3. Make things visible4. Get the mappings right5. Exploit the powers of constraints-Natural & Artificial6. Design for Error7. When all else fails, standardizeIt’s mandatory reading for any usability software engineer but also an interesting and well written book for anyone who’s ever pushed a “pull door” or scalded themselves in the shower (which is all of us).

  3. The distinction between Gibson’s and Norman’s sense of affordances allows us to distinguish between the utility/usefulness and the usability of an object: We both design for usefulness by creating affordances (the possibilities for action in the design) that match the goals of the user (the relativity of the affordance vis-à-vis the user) and we improve the usability by designing the information that specifies the affordances (perceptual information as shadows on buttons to afford clickability etc.).

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