Affordances … just one little word!

flickr photo by edoardocosta shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

At the last supervisory meeting whilst going over my RF1 submission, my supervisors asked me about one of the words I used – ‘Establish the features and affordances within Twitter that enable professional learning’ – wondering whether I realised that it was such a contested term. I didn’t! Nor had I appreciated how easily one could be undone by such a (notionally) simple term. One word, in one objective -> can of worms!

I was advised to contact someone in the University who had recently wrestled with the complexities of affordances as part of their research. I duly did and they were kind enough to both spare me a little time and to suggest a seminal paper, crucial in helping one to come to terms with this issue. In ‘The Problem with Affordances,’ Oliver takes us through the history and evolution of the term, critically examining the trajectories of development and ultimately suggesting that dropping the word might avoid the confusion and misuse which has arisen during its lifetime. This seemed somewhat defeatist; by all means be critical, but at least suggest alternatives or better options. Yet, in a case of the pot calling the kettle black, I too adopted Oliver’s dismissal approach and dropped the term by re-jigging that particular objective to allow me to submit my RF1. However, for me, that’s not the end of the story and I’d like to better understand it in order to make a more informed decision. I knew what affordance meant to me; I simply hadn’t appreciated that it meant a variety of things to different people, and as such had become problematic across a range of contexts.

A little history

Let me attempt to briefly summarise the story so far. James Gibson (1977, 1979) gave birth to the term ‘affordances’ whilst conducting work on animals’ visual perception. “The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, for good or ill.” (Gibson, 1979; 115). His view was rather positivist, seeing affordances as pre-existing within environments, independent of whether an individual perceives them, but nevertheless still related to the capabilities of the individual.

The term was appropriated by Donald Norman (1988), working in the field of design, who shifted the emphasis. He adopted a largely interpretivist standpoint in which “the term affordance refers to the perceived and actual properties of the thing.” Here we see the locus shifting from the object to the subject and how they perceive an object based on their past knowledge and experiences. In exploring affordances of technologies, Oliver contends that we have either the Gibsonian view of ‘technology as part of the environment’ and we abandon incorporating people’s minds, or we choose the ‘analytically ineffectual’ route of Norman which recognises ‘the cultural, constructive nature of learning.’

With those two streams of potential set in motion, McGrenere and Ho (2000) found that some people followed or attempted to build on the Gibsonian notion, others the Norman, some have tried to pull the two together and others used neither or failed to even define the term. They were working specifically the HCI community and in thinking about the design of objects attempted to clarify and extend the Gibson view by introducing and distinguishing between usability and usefulness “The usefulness of a design is determined by what the design affords.”

Also building from Gibson, Gaver (1991) proposed that ““Affordances, then, are properties of the world defined with respect to people’s interaction with it.” (my emphasis, to which I’ll return later). He develops the idea that  affordance and perception are independent of one another by offering different forms of affordance:

Adapted from: GAVER, William W. (1991). Technology affordances. In: Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems, ACM, 79-84.

He argues that ‘false affordances’ occur where people perceive an affordance, but where none actually exists and that ‘hidden’ affordances are where an affordance is present, but not perceived. However, I struggle to see the value of these distinctions; in neither case does an affordance effect change. I’d argue that an affordance is only meaningful if it results in an actioned outcome. If someone perceives an affordance where there is none, then no outcome results … so there was no affordance. If someone cannot perceive an affordance, once more there is no outcome, so there was no affordance. (I’ll pick this up later)

With the proliferation of computers and digital technologies appearing in education as the 21st century unfolded, affordances spread out from HCI to teaching & learning with ICTs. In synthesising some of the research across areas such as learning design, classroom activity, introduction of IWBs, software and the WWW, Hammond (2010; 211) identifies a consistent thread running through these studies; the interaction between user and tool. Affordance is not solely related to the tool or the person, but the interaction between the two. Helpfully, and unlike many other authors, in the spirit of attempting an agreed definition of affordance, Hammond concludes by offering his:

Affordance is the perception of a possibility of action (in the broad sense of thought as well as physical activity) provided by properties of, in this case, the computer plus software. These possibilities are shaped by past experience and context, may be conceptually sophisticated and may need to be signposted by peers and teachers. However, they may, drawing on intuition and deduction from user accounts, be ‘perceived directly’, and perception of actions can precede internal mental ordering. Perceptions of affordances can, and do, become habitual. Affordances arise because of real physical and symbolic properties of objects. Affordances provide both opportunities and  constraints. Affordances are always relative to something and, in the context of ICT, relative to desirable goals or strategies for teaching and learning. Affordances are often sequential and nested in time.

Building on Gibson, this definition attempts to be all encompassing, drawing together user (and their perception), tool, properties and the wider context within which they are set. I like the comprehensiveness and that it is forged within an educational setting, though can’t help feeling it is rather cumbersome. Maybe that’s necessary to avoid the accusation of shallowness?

From my (limited) perspective

In preparation for the meeting with my university friend and having only quickly read Oliver, I attempted to articulate what my limited understanding of affordance was. I started (as any physicist might) with the properties of the object; these are naturally occurring, measurable characteristics, like dimensions, mass, density, temperature, conductivity, transparency, topology. They are sometimes inherent and fixed, but can sometimes be altered. A tree has certain dimensions, but cutting it down allows us to alter them. The tensile and compressive strengths however are (largely) fixed. The possibility of intentionally changing an object involves some element of design and here is where features make an appearance. Features are aspects of an object designed to serve a specific purpose. They are hard-wired for that purpose, yet that may be closed, having a single intention, or open and offer multiple possibilities. An affordance however is what the object, property or feature allows you to do. They involve action, are open to interpretation and depend on the user. A single property or feature may provide multiple affordances, whilst a single affordance may require the assembly of several properties or features. Returning now to the offending objective in my RF1 which set this in motion – “Establish the features and affordances within Twitter that enable professional learning.” At that stage I hadn’t thought about properties, but based on what I’ve just said, since Twitter is a designed environment, it is features that will matter. What I would be looking for then is elements of the design which enable professional learning; those features might be general and include the ability to share information, to connect with other people and to view what they share, to participate using mobile technologies. Or they might be more specific like the 140 character limit, the profile, the retweet, the URL shortener. Others might view these as affordances, but for me they only become so when a user perceives a use and subsequently is able to commit an action … which ultimately leads to them (or someone else) learning professionally. For example, one feature of Twitter is the capability to embed a thumbnail video in a tweet. Let’s say a physics teacher finds a video which explains Newton’s third law and she chooses to share that through a tweet. The feature became an affordance when she knew she could share the video and chose to do so. Had she not known the feature existed (‘hidden’ in Gaver’s terms) or had she chosen not to share the video, then the feature remains just that and never becomes an affordance … for her … at that time.


When our physics teacher turned the feature into an affordance, that set in train a chain of events leading to multiple potential outcomes. Furthermore, using the same feature of video sharing, others might perceive and enact rather different affordances. This then presents an interesting possibility; that a feature might provide multiple affordances – different people, different intentions … and different enactments? The single video shared by our physics teacher becomes multiple when incorporated into different learning opportunities by different people. Alex may view the video and see an opportunity to teach Newton’s’ third in a different way; Bobbie may want to explore the ideas further so uses the video to stimulate discussion in a departmental meeting with colleagues. On the other hand, an English teacher may use the video sharing feature to share a poetry reading with his class, and subsequently reflect on the difference it made to his students’ learning compared with when he used to read the poems directly from the book.

That single feature, to be able to share videos, is used with different intentions, so provides different affordances. This results in multiple realities (de Laet & Mol, 2000), since the (single) video sharing feature affords different possibilities for both those who share videos and those who consume them. Might actor-network theory help me to untangle these interwoven threads?

When I was first prompted to think more carefully about affordances, I never anticipated I might need to draw on an ANT sensibility, but the fact that the two concepts seem to have something to contribute to one another is promising. Or should I be worried? I know my views are likely to leave me challenged, as Gibson was by Oliver, as providing only illustrative examples, rather than a definitive, all-encompassing means to define affordance. I’m also only too well aware that my understanding of ANT has a long way to go, but then I am only starting out at understanding what affordances and ANT, together and separately, might or might not mean for me.


Although lacking the awareness that affordances, as a term, carries baggage, at least I don’t appear to be alone. Papers like “The affordances of social media for inclusive urban communities” don’t even use the term beyond the title, let alone unpick it. Or “Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and Implications” which mentions it over forty times, but never defines it. Perhaps ‘affordances’ has indeed been rather too loosely accepted?

In addition to one of those occasional little insights, this episode also brought home to me how generous people often are in academia; keen to share their knowledge and help you develop your understanding. My friend needn’t have given up any of their precious time and could have rested at simply providing me with a link to the key paper. Instead they chose to sit down with me, listen to my naive and incoherent ramblings, yet remain patient and offer insights at appropriate times. How rewarding.

DE LAET, Marianne and MOL, Annemarie (2000). The Zimbabwe bush pump mechanics of a fluid technology. [online]. Social studies of science, 30 (2), 225-263.

GAVER, William W. (1991). Technology affordances. [online]. In: Proceedings of the SIGCHI conference on human factors in computing systems, ACM, 79-84.

GIBSON, James J. (1977). The theory of affordances. [online]. Hilldale, USA, .

GIBSON, James J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception: Classic Edition. [online]. Psychology Press.

HAMMOND, Michael (2010). What is an affordance and can it help us understand the use of ICT in education? [online]. Education and information technologies, 15 (3), 205-217.

MCGRENERE, Joanna and HO, Wayne (2000). Affordances: Clarifying and evolving a concept. [online]. In: Graphics interface, 179-186.

NORMAN, Donald A. (1988). The psychology of everyday things. [online]. Basic books.

OLIVER, Martin (2005). The problem with affordance. [online]. E-learning and digital media, 2 (4), 402-413.

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