Customer Experience: Affordance vs. Enablement
I never thought I’d have to write this article. I’d always assumed that I would be forever fighting on the side of affordance. After all, no matter how many UX professionals go out and preach the value of usability and simplicity, the hordes of functionalists seem never ending. And then the qualitatively driven people started to get greedy. They started to overreach and the debate is now out of balance.

Breaking it Down Old-School Style

Over the last month or so, Thierry de Baillon, Deb Lavoy and I have gone back and forth on the efficacy of the social enterprise and, for the most part, I was the qualitatively driven optimist in the mix. The one exception to this characterization was on the value of affordance compared to enablement. 

For those not in the know, affordance is a concept originally laid out by Don Norman in the foundational “Design of Everyday Things.” Affordance is fairly close to “intuitiveness,” but not exactly. The difference between intuitiveness and affordance can be explained when looking at the difference between the subject and object within an interaction. 

An object or interface is passively “intuitive.” In other words, it is up to the subject (i.e., the user) to intuit the intended usage pattern. The degree of ease or difficulty is called “intuitiveness.” Affordance, on the other hand, is active. When an object actively communicates its intended usage pattern to a user it is said to have higher affordance. For example, a door with a hand plate calls for your flat palm to push it. A door with a cylindrical and horizontal bar just above waist height beckons your hand to grasp and pull it.

A More Recent Spin

Most UX professionals, including myself, preach the values of affordance as being superior to enablement. These entreaties typically fall upon the deaf ears of quantitative-centric business executives, finance professionals and engineers. This context is what has led so many UX practitioners, departments and agencies to flip the script and turn towards how superior affordance can be translated into superior business results in terms of reduced costs and increased revenue through the bridging metric of adoption (adoption = % of intended target audience who willingly adopts a new system or practice). 

Higher adoption is clearly correlated with driving business results as long as the system and practice were thought out well enough in the first place (i.e., is the intended usage model of the system aligned with the desired business results). Given the ascendance of Apple (the enterprise most notably aligned with design principles like affordance), UX professionals have taken to saying that affordance is always superior to enablement, and while I’m not a fan of being the party-pooper, this is just not so.

Droppin' Some Science

The relationship of affordance and enablement can be drawn in a graph charting the "relevance" of each aspect over time.

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At the beginning of a product lifecycle for a new innovation, enablement is more correlated to business results than affordance (e.g., being the first to enable something will be more relevant for business results than having a completely holistic design for a product that has a high degree of affordance). A recent example is the introduction of Chromecast vs. the still under wraps Apple TV. Over time, however, this advantage fades and affordance becomes more relevant.

In life, like in product and service design, things are never as simple as they appear; and the Affordance vs. Enablement relationship is no outlier. Some exceptions exist (as they always do):

  1. Non-Captive Audience -- When target audiences aren't captive (e.g., they aren't employees) and the innovation is targeted higher up in Maslow's hierarchy (like Instagram vs. a new surgical instrument capable of new insight that can allow for more effective cancer treatment), then affordance will actually take precedence earlier in the product life-cycle and there may not be any room for enablement at all. Conversely, when the targeted audiences have a specific need to accomplish something (e.g., they are employees with a task that is core to their job) that is not currently possible, then enablement has a higher degree of relevance than affordance.
  2. High Switching Costs / Network Effect -- When switching costs are high, the power of affordance is weakened. For example, no matter how much better Google +'s circles are than the stagnant connection design inside Facebook (which would be even better if you could put circles inside circles), it just won't matter because of the high switching cost to move social networks and the degree to which the value is intertwined with the number of people who use the product (rather than the product itself). Conversely, when switching costs are low and there is no network effect in place, affordance will win out.

Keepin' It Real

As you go out and drop your own science on the value of design, UX and affordance, remember that stating things in absolutes opens you up to get torn down by the quants.  I hope that in preparing you with the facts, I haven't given too much ammunition to the UX-deniers. Good luck out there!

Title image courtesy of nasirkhan (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more from Stephen in A New Formula for an Innovative Culture