Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

Affordances: Commentary on the Special Issue of AI EDAM

The unwieldy acronym "AI EDAM"  stands for the Journal with the unwieldy name of "Artificial Intelligence for Engineering Design, Analysis and Manufacturing."  They published a special issue on Affordances (2015) and asked me to comment on the collection. Here is my commentary. Here's a quick summary:

The concept of affordances has an interesting history, starting with the keen observations and thoughts of the perceptual psychologist, J.J. Gibson in the late 1970s, moving into the world of design through the 1988 publication of my book "Design of Everyday Things" (later originally titled "Psychology of Everyday Things"), and then making its way into engineering design in the 2001 paper by Maier & Fadel. 

As a result of this disciplinary migration, the concept of affordance leads several rather separate lives within these different fields -- ecological psychology, Design, and engineering design -- with each field barely aware of the work being done in the others.

My major interest in the concept aligns with the interests of the authors of this special issue: the use of affordances as a practical tool for design.  The question these papers address is how can we design and objects and systems that are practical, reliable, affordable, functional, useable, and understandable. Affordances play critical roles in all of these aspects. Whether the designer comes from the traditional background of art and architectural schools, the modern background of a human-centered, systems analysis with an iterative prototype, test, and revise philosophy, or from engineering design with its more powerful set of formal design methods and tools, the end goals are the same.


Affordances can be the bridge between the traditional engineering focus on efficiency and function with the goals of fitting people needs, desires, and emotions. 

My reservations concern the disconnect between the engineering and design communities, a disconnect that goes in both directions. This collection of papers presents an excellent treatment of affordances from the point of view of engineering design, moving the engineering understanding forward in valuable ways. Now it is time to integrate this research with the existing practices within the design community. One problem is that engineers and designers publish in different journals and attend different conferences. Designers publish in journals such as Design Issues, Design Studies, and the International Journal of Design. In this collection of papers on affordances and design, the only design journal that is referenced is Design Studies and in only one paper, that of Pols. In turn the design community is ignorant of the work in engineering design. Thus, these papers are published in a special issue of AI EDAM, a name that will be foreign to people from the design community even if spelled out as Artificial Intelligence for Engineering Design, Analysis and Manufacturing.   


All communities make valuable contributions from their perspective of the issue. I continue to look forward to a merging of disciplines, where the insights of all fields can be brought together to form a new, harmonious whole, with many new and exciting emergent properties.