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Analysis of Affordances and Constraints

Norman (2002) explains that the affordances and constraints of the technology affect how one can use it. According to Norman, affordances are “the perceived and actual properties of the thing...that determine just how the thing could possibly be used” (p. 9). A constraint is something that limits the way in which an artifact can be used; “Affordances suggest the range of possibilities, constraints limit the number of alternatives” (p. 82). While visual cues associated with the tool can suggest the possibilities of use or limits of use, Norman also acknowledges that affordances and constraints may be part of the medium’s design but not immediately visible to the user.

I have noted previously that affordances and constraints of a given tool are relative to the user’s previous experiences with similar tools or technologies. Norman (2002) emphasizes first-hand experience as he discusses affordances and constraints; however, secondary research and readings based on others’ experiences can inform an analysis of affordances and constraints, too. If one has limited experience with a given tool, her understanding of that tool’s capabilities and limitations is shaped as she reads about how someone else used that technology.

Previous experience is part of the model; this is associated with an audience’s previous experiences with a given concept or tool. However, a designer’s own experiences with a given technology frame how he or she uses that tool to design the message. Many new technologies facilitate learning how to use them by incorporating attributes of older, but similar, technologies. As one looks at the interface of the audio recording application Audacity, for example, one experiences the interface of old tape recorders. As one uses a given technology more often, he or she becomes better familiar with its capabilities. That experience can enable the designer to develop better materials with that tool. Until that happens, though, the design will be limited by the designer’s understanding of the tool’s abilities.

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