Affordances – just because you can doesn’t mean you should

Affordances is a term made popular by Human-Computer Interaction theorist Donald Norman. The term refers to the actions that an object or system enable the user to take. A knife enables the user to cut. Thus, one affordance of a knife is “cuttability.”

I like to make a distinction between the actions that certain tools and objects enable vs the actions that tools and objects want to enable. Sure, a wrench can be used to hammer a nail, but it’s not what it was designed for. Hammering is not what a wrench wants to do. Not that you shouldn’t use a wrench to hammer a nail if that’s what you need to do and a wrench is all that you’ve got. Just remember that it’s important to understand that hammering is not what a wrench is designed for.

I have a controversial stance on the affordances of some digital fabrication tools. For example, in many cases, people use 3D printers for low batch production of identical parts. Yes, low batch production of identical parts is an affordance of a 3D printer – a 3D printer can do this. But it’s not what the tool wants to do. It’s quicker and easier on the machine (which is often a shared machine) to use a 3D printer to make a mold and do your low batch production using a mold rather than running the printer for 500 hours (and dealing with all of the hiccups) to make your ten identical parts.

I also believe that laser cutters afford cutting. Yes, they do etching really well and many a laser cutter owner uses their machine to run an etching business (think trophies). But etching, compared to cutting, is really slow. And if you are using a laser in a shared space, it’s advantageous to lean into what the tool really wants to do: lighting quick cutting. Don’t use a wrench to hammer a nail if you don’t have to.

 

TAKE IT FURTHER

Affordances and Design on jnd.org

Affordances on IxD Foundation

 

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