Affordances in Design and HCI

"Despite more or less starting the mouse trend, the past decade has seen some truly awful mice from Apple. Fans of the original iMac will remember the hockey-puck variety which was great if you had hooves for hands. Even worse that was for whatever reason Apple refused to add a second button to its mice, even though every other manufacturer was and most of those were clearly better products" - http://techcrunch.com/2009/11/09/magic-mouse-is-apples-best-mouse-ever-but/
Apple’s Magic Mouse

I was recently helping a colleague of mine fill up an online form on his iMac. Get this picture: I was standing up next to him, with no immediate access to the keyboard. The task involved a simple copy and paste operation. Upon trying to do so (mouse only operation, keyboard was not in reach) I found myself missing the right mouse button. My immediate reaction was … “Oh, how can I do this?!“, until I remembered that an Apple mouse is touch sensitive, and still offers the luxurious right-click functionality – albeit, it does not explicitly afford it! (did I split an infinitive here?) 

My first reaction was: “Really? Is this a design flaw coming from Apple??“. In a TechCrunch review, the author wrote: “Despite more or less starting the mouse trend, the past decade has seen some truly awful mice from Apple. Fans of the original iMac will remember the hockey-puck variety which was great if you had hooves for hands. Even worse that was for whatever reason Apple refused to add a second button to its mice, even though every other manufacturer was and most of those were clearly better products“.

Upon reflection, my mind went back to a similar situation (involving another Apple machine): I was trying to do another copy/paste operation, this time using a MacBook Air keyboard. For us non Apple users this is a ubiquitous, and straight forward disyllabic operation: Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V!

Affordances
Designing with desired actions in mind (Image from www.betterimprovement.com)

Upon further reflection, I came to this conclusion. It is not a design flaw, but a design decision. Mac users will learn this ‘feature’ during their first few interactions, and then they will not think about it (actively) any more – it becomes a habit.

Then I thought about the access keypad we use every day to access our offices (Faculty of ICT – Malta). It requires us to punch in a code (something we know) and touch the NFC access card against it (something we own), however there is no obvious space against which we are supposed to place the card, and there is no visible/audible indication that the near field communication (NFC) transaction has been completed successfully. Does this have serious implications? Not really. It can be quite awkward to complete the transaction for the first couple of times, especially if there’s someone next to you. Well, really, it is a conversation starter.

Then, again, this got me thinking. When would the lack of affordance carry serious implications?

  1. High Traffic Volume: Could be, however once people get used to it (‘get it’), traffic flows would eventually stabilize and improve. This can cause issues especially when coupled with the following factor;
  2. Ratio of New Users vs. Repeat Users? I guess this is where lack of affordance can cause serious problems. Traffic flows would suffer since new people are continuously ‘learning’ on the go, and the learning process can be daunting and expensive especially where high throughput is required (take the London Underground for instance…. less people would manage to get in (per minute) –> commuters would get frustrated by the waste of time caused by these ‘newbies’ –> queues would be intolerable –> shall we talk about the economic impact?)

Lesson learnt: Lack of explicit affordances in products (software/hardware) might not hurt in repetitive interactions (even at high volumes – discounting the initial learning curve) however serious implications might be introduced when there is a high ratio of first-time interactions, as opposed to repeat-usage.

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