Coevolving Innovations

… in Business Organizations and Information Technologies

Is that affordance essential? (HSSE)

For the 1st International Conference on Human Side of Service Innovation, I had been asked  by Kelly Lyons to contribute an article for a session on Frameworks for Service Systems.  I had worked on the article in fall 2011, but leading a 6-day conference in San Jose immediately before the start of the HSSE meeting in San Francisco made completion improbable.  Having prepared an abstract and outline for “Is That Affordance Essential? Pathology in service systems and redesigns for sustainability”, I couldn’t squeeze in an article by the winter publication deadline. I was, however, prepared to share a presentation on research-in-progress.  I expect that I’ll be able to finish this research paper over the next year, (and hope that I’ll get a longer time slot to present than the 15 minutes allotted at HSSE).

The original abstract for my presentation reads:

A service systems may exhibit pathologies, i.e. an abnormal, unhealthy, maladjusted or inefficient state that is maintained in a living system for a significant period. Correcting a pathology may require a history-making change where significant capital investment is needed.

As a way of reframing the definition of a service system, interactions between parties are expressed as an interaction where a provider offers affordances and clients may have varying levels of ability. The needs and expectations of high-ability clients can be contrasted to those of low-ability clients. Portraying affordances as essential or discretionary may enable segmentation of client target groups into coproducing or full-service arrangements.

Some example service systems, in municipal services, pension plans and open source communities are described to illustrate considerations of pathologies towards potential pursuits of sustainability.

Alternative approaches to correct the pathologies are related to theories of ecological complexity, in panarchies and supply-side sustainability. Directions for further development are outlined.

The slides are available on the Coevolving Commons.  The 15 minutes gave enough time to describe some motivating cases, and then work my way down a list of definitions supplemented by pointers to originating sources.

As the presentation was ending, time was allowed for one question.  Jim Spohrer asked about the definition of affordances (with abilities) that I used.  My initial response wasn’t sufficient, so he probed some more.  A moment later, I figured out that Don Norman — who is renowned for the idea of affordances in The Design of Everyday Things — was sitting beside Jim.  We didn’t get a chance to complete that conversation, as the next speaker came on.  Not recognizing Norman in the audience probably saved me from being intimidated and more self-conscious during the presentation.

While I had researched Norman’s view on affordances previously, the citation that is in the working paper is not in the 15-minute presentation.  In an essay on “Affordances and Design” on Norman’s web site, he revises the label of “affordances” in his book to “perceived affordances”.

AFFORDANCE
The word “affordance” was originally invented by the perceptual psychologist J. J. Gibson (1977, 1979) to refer to the actionable properties between the world and an actor (a person or animal). To Gibson, affordances are a relationship. They are a part of nature: they do not have to be visible, known, or desirable. Some affordances are yet to be discovered. Some are dangerous. I suspect that none of us know all the affordances of even everyday objects.

PERCEIVED AFFORDANCE
I introduced the term affordance to design in my book, “The Psychology of Everyday Things” (POET: also published as “The Design of …”). The concept has caught on, but not always with true understanding. Part of the blame lies with me: I should have used the term “perceived affordance,” for in design, we care much more about what the user perceives than what is actually true. What the designer cares about is whether the user perceives that some action is possible (or in the case of perceived non-affordances, not possible).

In product design, where one deals with real, physical objects, there can be both real and perceived affordances, and the two need not be the same. In graphical, screen-based interfaces, all that the designer has available is control over perceived affordances.

In my presentation, I emphasized a different source, with James G. Greeno (1994), that is clearer — for my purpose of appreciating varying levels of ability in service systems with multiple types of offerings — on the relational perspective.

In any interaction involving an agent with some other system, conditions that enable that interaction include some properties of the agent along with some properties of the other system. Consistent with his emphasis on understanding how the environment supports cognitive activity, Gibson focused on contributions of the physical system. The term affordance refers to whatever it is about the environment that contributes to the kind of interaction that occurs. One also needs a term that refers to whatever it is about the agent that contributes to the kind of interaction that occurs. I prefer the term ability ….

Affordances and abilities … are, in this view, inherently relational. An affordance relates attributes of something in the environment to an interactive activity by an agent who has some ability, and an ability relates attributes of an agent to an interactive activity with something in the environment that has some affordance. The relativity of affordances and abilities is fundamental. Neither an affordance nor an ability is specifiable in the absence of specifying the other. It does not go far enough to say that an ability depends on the context of environmental characteristics, or that an affordance depends on the context of an agent’s characteristics. The concepts are codefining, and neither of them is coherent, absent the other, any more than the physical concept of motion or frame of reference makes sense without both of them.

As Gibson’s idea of affordances has been developed in research, it seems most productive when it is treated as a graded property rather than as a property that is or is not present. [Greeno 1994, p.338]

These definitions of affordances, and the way in which I use the label, are more consistent with the systems thinking perspective that I have on service science. This should all be better explained when a coherent written article becomes available.

Presenting work-in-progress can be seen as a risky activity, or an opportunity to open up a conversation.  The HSSE stream at this conference included many researchers I know, so the encouragements of a friendly audience were welcomed. Microblogging at the conference has appeared with a hashtag of #hsse2012.

References

Greeno, James G. 1994. “Gibson’s Affordances.” Psychological Review 101 (2): 336–342. doi:10.1037/0033-295X.101.2.336. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.101.2.336.

[See “Is That Affordance Essential? Pathology in service systems and redesigns for sustainability” at http://coevolving.com/commons/20120724-is-that-affordance-essential. The original presentation version is available, as well as a printable version.]


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