In conversation with several people recently we have been chatting about new “stuff” we have seen. A class of query that often came up was “yes, but what does it do?/does it do it better?/it looks as though it should be better. Is it?” The question reminded me of a paper by Bill Buxton called Less is More (More or Less) and a subsequent conversation we had about innovation and designing things for people that actually had real benefits.
We talked of affordances that clued and guided people to exploit them and do the job better and hence have a better experience. His paper talks about cognitive overload and featuritis that can distract from the task or even just be invisible.
But what is an affordance? It is a word often used in the context of computing but what about affordances for the rest of us?
James J Gibson invented the word in his book “The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception”
He says, “The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, but the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.” He talks of terrain, shelters, water, fire, objects, tools, surfaces, other animals and human displays and how we perceive them is how we perceive what they afford. As we live in an “Experience Economy” then understanding affordances can help us design and adapt our environment to do the jobs we need to get done to enjoy our time doing what we need to do, and choose to do.
Observing what is going on around us is a useful input to understanding needs and aspirations.
The heading picture shows an adaptation I made to enable me to sit outside and write these words in the shade of a tree, on a very hot day. Yes I have a patio table but it’s in the sun, but I have a few 30 year old milk crates that were no longer serviceable (as crates) but find all sorts of uses, as long as I do not think of them as milk crates… as big Lego bricks they become affordances for?
This picture shows that there are alternative uses for a surface. The lockers under trucks are used to store all sorts of things but I saw this use for the locker door as I passed a lay-by near my home. The Turkish driver and his mate had crated a mini café from their locker. They had food storage and preparation area, water and a table to eat their meals from.
Such observations can lead us to think “what-if?” What-if I take the situation and adaptation and think of it as a product or service? In my career I and my peers often adapted our environment, tools, etc. to do the job we wanted to get done, or someone else wanted to get done. We shared freely and in return got feedback in the form of critique of what we had created or even better solutions that replaced our “lash-ups”. Our openness enabled a marketplace of ideas, concepts and prototypes to grow up which made a difference to people’s daily activities and made the job fun as well!