The Affordance of Things - Next Action Associates

That is not a typo. I’m not talking about the cost but the affordance, or what something in our environment allows us – or invites us – to do.

A simple example would be a button on a device. The button invites us to push it or twist it, while a cord invites pulling. Things in our environment invite us to certain actions, but discourage others. A football is kickable in a way that a tree is not, and so on.

How is this relevant to you and me?

Well, some of the ‘stuff’ that moves around us as knowledge workers also invites a particular response, and that invitation may or may not lead us to the right action choice.

Example: I would posit that – for many of us – the action we are drawn to take with an e-mail is to respond to the mail. That is sometimes the right thing to do, but very often responding to the mail is not what I need to do about the mail at all, it just makes me feel better about clearing up my inbox.

In order to make the right choice about what to do about the e-mail, I need to take just a few more seconds to work out what I really need to do about it, like – perhaps – calling someone else for more information, or to think about it more fully and bring it up in a meeting later in the week.

The action an e-mail draws me to – responding to it – is particularly tempting, because I can do it immediately, and get (erroneously perhaps) relief immediately. Often, I may not be able to do the right next action right away, given where I am.

These few seconds of thinking about the thing that has arrived makes all the difference to my efficiency and effectiveness in the workplace. If I don’t do the thinking and instead consistently allow myself to be led to the wrong next action, I’m simply postponing doing the right thing (while perhaps feeling good for having done something, anything at all), or – worse – I’m setting myself up for explosions a bit further down the road.

I’ve noticed that the affordance of a thing or an event (what it draws me to do) also seems to be dependent on the habits and capabilities of the person concerned. For example, for someone without a decent way to record promises, the invitation to action of a conversation containing promises is to try to hold that promise in their heads. For someone with a useable and omnipresent capture tool, the invitation to action of that conversation is to write it down, quickly.

For someone without a decent filing system, pieces of paper invite piling. The same piece of paper for someone with a filing system is an invitation to put them into the system.

Similarly, e-mail invites responding from those who are not giving themselves time to think, and have no system to put deferred actions into. For someone with the habit of thinking about their work before acting, and a trusted system to hold actions other than e-mail responses, the e-mail is simply a different version of ‘stuff’. As such, it invites processing, having actions stripped out for tracking on a list, and eventual filing.

It wasn’t a typo up at the top, but if you read ‘afford’ and thought cost, you weren’t far off; being moved to the wrong action by cues in our environment is costing us a lot more than money, both personally and professionally.

(with thanks to James J. Gibson and Donald Norman for the original thinking on the subject of affordance, and to Dr. Daniel Glaser for bringing it to my attention)

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