27 November 2008

Don Norman drops affordances

Finally, Don Norman has moved on from describing the cues in 'things' about how to use them (the flat surface of the chair that invites us to sit, the plate on a door that invites us to push) as 'affordances.' The term (originally used by psychologist, J.J. Gibson) was used widely by interaction designers; and, according to Norman, often used wrongly but it was hard to know when. Now, he's broadened the description of cues to 'social signifiers,' recognising it's not just things that cue our behaviour but the habits, behaviour and tracks of humans. For example, a crowded railway platform suggests the train we're rushing for has not yet arrived; a flag in the wind tells us the direction the wind is coming from (even if that wasn't the intention in displaying the flag). Norman is now calling these cues 'signifiers.' In his words:

"Social signifiers replace affordances, for they are broader and richer, allowing for accidental signifiers as well as deliberate ones, and even for items that signify through their absence, as the lack of crowds on a train platform."

His rationale for the change can be read on his web site and also in Interactions, November-December 2008, pp 18-19. If you haven't lived through the over use of 'affordance' this will just seem like a terminological storm in a teacup. For me, 'cue' is quite enough.

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