Affordances and relationships

I wrote this out recently for a mobile videography course I taught this semester.

Understanding the concept of ‘affordances’ is complex due to the different uses of the term in varying contexts.

The wikipedia overview although not necessarily an authoritative reference point provides an insight into the way Norman uses the concept differently in relation to the field of interaction and user experience design.

Gibson’s use of the concept within the field of cognitive psychology focuses on potential actions. From wikipedia:

He defined affordances as all “action possibilities” latent in the environment, objectively measurable and independent of the individual’s ability to recognize them, but always in relation to agents and therefore dependent on their capabilities. For instance, a set of steps which rises four feet high does not afford the act of climbing if the actor is a crawling infant.

While Norman takes this another step in relation to interaction and user experience design. In Normans use of affordances the person brings to an object prior knowledge and has particular goals. In connection with the notion of design it is about the relationship that the user can have with the object, which is referred to by Norman as ‘perceived affordances’. From wikipedia:

It makes the concept dependent not only on the physical capabilities of an actor, but also the actor’s goals, plans, values, beliefs, and past experiences. If an actor steps into a room with 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 and shape of a softball obviously fit nicely in the average human hand, and its density and texture make it perfect for throwing. The user may also bring past experiences to bear with similar objects (baseballs, perhaps) when evaluating a new affordance.

In our experiments we focus on the mobile phone as a type of video camera and explore what that camera phone enables us to do with it in relation to filmmaking or videographic practice. We bring to that exploration preconceived ideas about how video should be used to create fiction, nonfiction and experimental video works. What we are exploring through both the evaluation of theory and a practice-led investigation (working with video sketches) is how the smartphone as a type of video camera can be used in terms of making the most of what it has to offer this type of practice. In addition to this we are making new discoveries in relation to how the affordances of that device, computers and the network may alter filmmaking or videographic practice.

Included in that exploration is this device being connected to the network (Internet,WWW) and potentially a desktop computer being used or not used to create video works. For instance, having a video camera connected to the network alters how it may be used in comparison to other video cameras that do not have that functionality. Also in a similar manner to a computer this video camera in the form of a smartphone with an operating system functioning as a type of mobile computer that utilises software (like mobile apps for example) to record and edit video material. Therefore the video camera integrated into a type of computer, like micro forms of video cameras are on most desktop computers.

Bill Gaver in the article ‘Technological Affordances’ in the design field makes a useful point in regards to working with different technologies. Gaver suggests that affordances are examined (quote) “as a way of focussing on the strengths and weaknesses of technologies with respect to the possibilities they offer the people that might use them.” (p.79). This argument can be used within the context of ‘post-industrial media’ and consequently media practice in regards to media production. How can we use a camera phone for media production (or videographic practice specifically) in regards to the strengths and weaknesses that this device has to offer?

Ultimately we are interested in what we can do with this technology (what is possible>), through an experimental approach towards video practice.


Norman, D 1998, The design of everyday things, Basic Book, New York.

Norman, D 1999, Affordance, conventions and design (Part 2), Nielsen Norman
Group, viewed April 2012, .

Gibson, J 1979 The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Gaver B 1991, ‘Technology Affordances’, Proceeding CHI ’91 Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, pp 79-84.

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