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Ethics and Aesthetics: Affordance Theory

Posted by On Tuesday, July 12, 2016

To kick off our Ethics and Aesthetics series we discussed the aesthetic-usability effect, and offered some theories on why beautiful things tend to work better. In our second post, we will examine J. J. Gibson’s theory of affordances, and how the animal propensity for action shapes our perception of objects and their function.

J.J. Gibson was one of the most influential psychologists in the field of visual perception. In his book “The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception,” he outlined his theory of affordances, which designers continue to rely on today. The theory of affordances states that we perceive objects in the world in terms of how their properties may enable actions, and not by the properties themselves. The movie 2001: A Space Odyssey has a great example of an affordance when a Paleolithic man-ape extracts a long, heavy femur bone from a dry animal carcass and realizes that it affords smashing, and proceeds to use it to beat and kill the leader of a rival tribe. Indeed, our earliest record of inter-group violence between humans indicates that club-like objects were employed to inflict blunt force injury, and prehistoric bone clubs have been excavated in the Pacific Northwest.  Long bones were therefore utilized as clubs because their shape afforded grasping, and their weight afforded causing bodily damage.

In our training courses, we use affordance theory to better engage our users. Like designers who make physical objects, interaction designers use affordance theory to ensure that users have an intuitive understanding of what objects on the screen do, even without explicit instructions. Unlike physical objects, digital objects don’t have predetermined weight, form, or shape. Therefore, designers give interactive elements properties that suggest an associated action. For example, a button shaded to appear convex affords clicking, since it resembles the shadow of physical buttons. Skeumorphism is a technique that uses metaphoric affordances to make conceptual connections between digital objects and physical ones. A digital dashboard that mimics the look of a car dashboard immediately clues users in as to its function (i.e.  a control panel through which you can access different instruments.)

We have historically gotten great feedback on the Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) Calculator in Think About It, our course on sexual violence and substance abuse prevention for college students. Students find it fun to input different values for gender, weight, number and type of drinks, and time elapsed into the calculator to see how it affects BAC. The apparatus is designed with looping tubes, sliders, and digital readouts. These exaggerated technological features make it reminiscent of a slightly kitschy retrofuturistic toy. It is one of the more popular features of the course.

Due to its popularity, we discussed the idea of making the BAC calculator into an app that students could download and use at parties so that they might have a better idea of their BAC “in the field,” so to speak. However, we realized that the toy-like nature of the interaction was more afforded to “having fun” than “accurately measuring BAC as a way to stay safe.” In other words, making the BAC calculator available as a portable app may actually encourage students to overdrink by making it into a party game. Competition is one of the top cited reasons for college students for playing drinking games. Like traditional breathalizers that have become party games, the BAC calculator spits out a number, which can appear score-like and encourage competition. So we decided to keep the tool located inside the course to increase its informative affordance and reduce its impetus-to-imbibe affordance.

When designing features for our courses, we aim to be thoughtful about the social, political, and ideological context for its use. Affordance theory gives us a useful tool to analyze how well we are doing. However, nothing compares to direct user feedback, so please don’t hesitate to reach out to us with your thoughts!

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