The term affordance was created by psychologist James J. Gibson. He originally coined the term in his 1966 book, The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, and it occurs in many of his earlier essays (e.g.). However, his best-known definition is taken from his seminal 1979 book, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception:
The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.-- Gibson (1979, p. 127)
Though additional meanings have developed, the original definition in psychology includes all transactions that are possible between an individual and their environment. When the concept was applied to design, it started also referring to only those physical action possibilities of which one is aware.
The word is used in a variety of fields: perceptual psychology, cognitive psychology, environmental psychology, industrial design, human-computer interaction (HCI), interaction design, user-centered design, communication studies, instructional design, science, technology and society (STS), sports science and artificial intelligence.
Psychologist James J. Gibson developed the concept of affordance over many years, culminating in his final book The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception in 1979. He defined an affordance as what the environment provides or furnishes the animal. Notably, Gibson compares an affordance with an ecological niche emphasizing the way niches characterize how an animal lives in its environment. An affordance is independent of an individual's ability to recognize it or even take advantage of it, and so, should not be confused with a privately perceived world or a phenomenology of perception. The key to understanding affordance is that it is relational and characterizes the suitability of the environment to the observer, and so, depends on their current intentions and their capabilities. For instance, a set of steps which rises four feet high does not afford climbing to the crawling infant, yet might provide rest to a tired adult or the opportunity to move to another floor for an adult who wished to reach an alternative destination. This notion of intention/needs is critical to an understanding of affordance, as it explains how the same aspect of the environment can provide different affordances to different people, and even to the same individual at another point in time. As Gibson puts it, "Needs control the perception of affordances (selective attention) and also initiate acts." Gibson's is the prevalent definition in cognitive psychology.
According to Gibson, humans tend to alter and modify their environment so as to change its affordances to better suit them. On his view, humans change the environment to make it easier to live in (even if making it harder for other animals to live in it): to keep warm, to see at night, to rear children, and to move around. This tendency to change the environment is natural to humans, and Gibson argues that it is a mistake to treat the social world apart from the material world or the tools apart from the natural environment. He points out that manufacturing was originally done by hand as a kind of manipulation.
Gibson argues that learning to perceive an affordance is an essential part of socialization. The theory of affordances introduces a "value-rich ecological object". Affordances cannot be described within the value-neutral language of physics, but rather introduces notions of benefits and injuries to someone. An affordance captures this beneficial/injurious aspect of objects and relates them to the animal for whom they are well/ill-suited. During childhood development, a child learns to perceive not only the affordances for the self, but also how those same objects furnish similar affordances to another. A child can be introduced to the conventional meaning of an object by manipulating which objects command attention and demonstrating how to use the object through performing its central function. By learning how to use an artifact, a child "enters into the shared practices of society" as when they learn to use a toilet or brush their teeth. And so, by learning the affordances, or conventional meaning of an artifact, children learn the artifact's social world and further, become a member of that world.
Affordances were further studied by Eleanor J. Gibson, wife of James J. Gibson, who created her theory of perceptual learning around this concept. Her book, An Ecological Approach to Perceptual Learning and Development, explores affordances further.
Anderson, Yamagishi and Karavia (2002) sought to determine whether visual attention or affordance forms the basis of the motor signals generated by many everyday graspable objects. By examining how the properties of an object affect an observer's reaction time for judging its orientation, they provided evidence to indicate that directed visual attention (not affordance) is responsible for the automatic generation of many motor signals associated with the spatial characteristics of perceived objects.
In 1988, Donald Norman appropriated the term affordances in the context of human-machine interaction to refer to just those action possibilities that are readily perceivable by an actor. This new definition of "action possibilities" has now become synonymous with Gibson's work, although Gibson himself never made any reference to action possibilities in any of his writing. Through Norman's book The Design of Everyday Things, this interpretation was popularized within the fields of HCI, interaction design, and user-centered design. It makes the concept dependent not only on the physical capabilities of an actor, but also on their goals, beliefs, and past experiences. If an actor steps into a room containing an armchair and a softball, Gibson's original definition of affordances allows that the actor may throw the chair and sit on the ball, because this is objectively possible. Norman's definition of (perceived) affordances captures the likelihood that the actor will sit on the armchair and throw the softball. Effectively, Norman's affordances "suggest" how an object may be interacted with. For example, the size, shape and weight of a softball make it perfect for throwing by humans, and it matches their past experience with similar objects. The focus on perceived affordances is much more pertinent to practical design problems[why?], which may explain its widespread adoption.
Norman later explained that this restriction of the term's meaning had been unintended, and that he would replace it by "perceived affordance" in any future revision of the book. However, the definition from his book has been widely adopted in HCI and interaction design, and both meanings are now commonly used in these fields.
Following Norman's adaptation of the concept, affordance has seen a further shift in meaning where it is used as an uncountable noun, referring to the easy discoverability of an object or system's action possibilities, as in "this button has good affordance". This in turn has given rise to a use of the verb afford - from which Gibson's original term was derived - that is not consistent with its dictionary definition (to provide or make available): designers and those in the field of HCI often use afford as meaning "to suggest" or "to invite".
The different interpretations of affordances, although closely related, can be a source of confusion in writing and conversation if the intended meaning is not made explicit and if the word is not used consistently. Even authoritative textbooks can be inconsistent in their use of the term.
When affordances are used to describe information and communications technology (ICT) an analogy is created with everyday objects with their attendant features and functions. Yet, ICT's features and functions derive from the product classifications of its developers and designers. This approach emphasizes an artifact's convention to be wholly located in how it was designed to be used. In contrast, affordance theory draws attention to the fit of the technology to the activity of the user and so lends itself to studying how ICTs may be appropriated by users or even misused. One meta-analysis reviewed the evidence from a number of surveys about the extent to which the Internet is transforming or enhancing community. The studies showed that the internet is used for connectivity locally as well as globally, although the nature of its use varies in different countries. It found that internet use is adding on to other forms of communication, rather than replacing them.
William Gaver divided affordances into three categories: perceptible, hidden, and false.
This means that, when affordances are perceptible, they offer a direct link between perception and action, and, when affordances are hidden or false, they can lead to mistakes and misunderstandings.
Organisms in their life-worlds recognize not only sensory inputs, but also functional tones, the use they need to make of certain stimuli if they are to do what they need to survive.
Rob Withagen; Margot van Wermeskerken (2010). "The role of affordances in the evolutionary process considered: A niche construction perspective". Theory and Psychology. 20 (4): 489-510. doi:10.1177/0959354310361405.
Manuel Heras-Escribano; Manuel de Pinedo-García (2018). "Affordances and Landscapes: Overcoming the Nature-Culture Dichotomy Through Niche Construction Theory". Frontiers in Psychology. 8 (2294): 1-15.
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