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.
At home, at work, and school we benefit from sharing spaces, tools, and resources. However, sharing resources is challenging because the responsibility for them is distributed. Shared spaces get messy. Shared tools get broken. And no one person is on the line to clean or fix them.
So when you use a shared space, leave the space better than you found it. Do something extra. Change that light bulb that’s been out for too long. Make and hang that sign that needs to be in place. Sweep those stairs that need sweeping. And when you contribute, don’t be a silent contributor. Let the group know what you’ve contributed. Your generosity will inspire others to make their own contributions.
I don’t normally promote products here, but this is one that I truly believe in. The “Ship It Journal” by Seth Godin. The prompts in the journal are the perfect balance between focused and open which creates an ideal space for you to explore, evaluate, plan, and ship a project.
90% of new products fail. They fail because the team that designed the product paid more attention to their product and features and their own motivations than they did to their customers’ problems and worldview.
Take for instance that little voice-activated robot in my kitchen (Amazon Alexa). It’s crystal clear to me that the Alexa product team is much more focused on making shopping on Amazon easy for me than they are with my actual needs in the kitchen. It’s early days so I’m somewhat forgiving, but in the moment when I really need a reminder of how to make miso dressing, I get pissed off. Each time I have to put down my knife, wash and dry my hands, and walk over to my phone or laptop to get a recipe using my wet fingers, I just cringe. Alexa, why do you hate me?
I’m tired of orienting my computing toward a screen. I want to search the internet for recipes while I’m cooking and my voice-activated robot doesn’t accommodate that well. I want to write while I am taking a walk or in the shower–the best ideas come at those times. I want to watch a movie while stretching or lying flat on my back. I want to help my partner figure out how to do something online without having to look over his shoulder at his screen which is way too small for me to see clearly anyway. I’m ready.
UX is commonly understood as the web or app piece of your product or service. Also thought of as interface design. Most often it’s handled by the token designer on a team and understood in terms of cool visuals and animations. But this understanding of UX is too small.
Then there is UX, the entire user experience that your customers have with your product. That experience may start with an ad, a sales call, a word of mouth recommendation. Then, if you are lucky, that’s followed by customer buy-in and a registration or setup process. After that is the experience your customer has with your product over time. Does your product get to know your customer and adapt its behavior to better meet their needs? Does it give your customer the kind of feedback that they need? Does it inspire your customer to level up if leveling up is part of your business model?
These questions help us understand UX at a high level. It’s rare that the lone junior designer on your team will even know to ask these questions. But if you examine these questions with a small team on a regular basis, then your designer is well positioned to give you a range of potential solutions.
Melanie Shapiro is the CEO and co-founder of a wearable identity system, Token. Shapiro holds a PhD in Consumer Behavior from the University of Reading, sold her first tech company, Digsby, in 2010, and has spent time as a researcher for Microsoft.
In this video, Shapiro spends a glorious eight minutes talking about her product at a high-level, “We are trying to give people control of their identity and we start by eliminating all of the things that you have to carry around to prove who you are.”
She’s talking about the social and human behavior that her design team is responding to (the problem space) and not the technological features that her team is building (the solution space). Shapiro offers us some history,
“When we were living in villages, our society was only as big as the 150 people around us. People knew us by our personhood…and that was enough. Complexity was added when that society grew to be a global society and suddenly I need to prove who I am to someone that is all the way on the other side of the world and that person has no history with me. How do we create that sense of trust?”
And then goes on to critique the centralized and siloed structure of our current solutions for creating trust. It’s an insightful and articulate critique.
It’s such a pleasure to watch a tech video that isn’t focused on features but rather on human behavior, culture, and society. And I appreciate a smart device team that thinks beyond the screen and beyond siloed solutions as the Token team is doing. The tech world needs more of this.
TAKE IT FURTHER
You can read more about Shapiro’s human-centered approach on the Token blog
The designer’s role on a product team is to be an advocate for the user of the product or system that’s being developed. This advocacy starts with empathy–understanding the user’s values, behaviors, environment, problems and so on. This empathy and understanding then manifests itself in the product as usability and delight–designs that are not only easy to use but that inspire joy.
Designers might find the periodic table of enchantment above by David Rose particularly useful and joyous. It organizes product categories not by industry sector or manufacturing process, but by the human desires that they address. The six categories that Rose calls out are: the desire to be omniscient, to be telepathic, the desire to be safe, to live forever, to transport from one place to another, and the desire to be expressive.
When you think about your product in this way, you think less about your team’s technical capabilities and more about helping your users and customers become the superheroes that they so long to be. It’s an excellent perspective from which to design.
In the video above, Qi demonstrates the analog precursor to Chibitronics with her Circuit Sticker Sketchbook. It’s a delightful workbook and equally delightful demo video. And if you’re into product evolution, you can find some earlier iterations of Qi’s sketchbook on youtube like this video here
What’s so impressive about these books is their simplicity and high usability. Simplicity is a funny thing. Artists & Inventors know that it’s harder to make something simple than to make something that’s not. Simplicity is actually complex and it takes a lot of work and emotional intelligence to achieve.
I admire inventors like Jie Qi that create easy-to-use modular systems that help people be creative. Systems like legos or tinker-toys or little bits or bare conductive!
I don’t know who designed this poster template, but I love it. By looking at it you can see that the designer has prioritized the information in order of importance, then employed a set of constraints to convey the message in the simplest way possible. The set of constraints are made up of three elements: color, size, arrangement.
PRIORITIES. You know a that a designer has their priorities in order if their work passes “the squint test.” That is, if their reader squints at it, they know what it’s about. Readers don’t need to know all of the information at once. They need to know the most important thing. Then, if the most important thing is interesting to them, they will move closer to the poster to get the details.
CONSTRAINTS. Designing something that is clear takes discipline. Effective designers use constraints to get their point across. Sure, they could use every color in the rainbow, but in most cases, that just confuses things. Sure, they could make all of the type close in size, but then how would your reader know what information is most important? Sure you could arrange elements all over the page equally, but then how would your reader know what to read first?
The most common pushback I hear from junior designers on constraints is that they limit creativity. I don’t know where this idea comes from but it’s false. The best artists and inventors use constraints. And you should too.