In Defence of Jargon

A week or so ago I introduced my Night build in an online educational forum as:

“A design concept that investigates how the affordances of virtual world environments might be employed in immersive literature. Developed out of study for the MA Education in Virtual Worlds.”

I received a response:

“God, can’t you pick a better word than “affordance?” My jargon detector just flew off the scale”

I refuted that I was God and a moment passed. I then received the following suggestion:

“Isa, I would suggest “features.” Here revised version: A design concept that investigates how eduactors can use the features of virtual environments for immersive literature that promotes engagement and other learning outcomes.”

I thought about this on and off, taking into consideration that I have at times had my own aversion to jargon, and every time I reflected on it I came back to the realisation that I really did mean affordances, rather than features. An interesting turn of events because I also realised that if I looked back a year ago to see how I might have phrased that introduction, I think I may have used the word features instead. So where did the word affordance come from?

It would be fair to say that every discipline has its jargon and education is no shirker there. I have been regularly exposed to it throughout the MA, and have encountered the word affordance often, particularly when reading on educational spaces. In attempting to flesh out its meaning more in the contexts it was used in I came across an article on product design that caught my attention; Affordance, conventions and design (Norman, 1999). The article was written in support of the publication, The Psychology of Everyday Things (Norman, 1988) and considered aspects of design in graphical, screen based interfaces. The Scripting and Building Learning Environments module covers a number of disciplines and virtual world immersion being a user-centric computer driven activity, interface design holds a certain relevance.

One of the questions he poses, and one that interested me in relation to the Night build is,

When you first encounter something you have never seen before, how do you know what to do? (Norman, 1999, p.39)

This was an important question as, in my build, users would initially enter into a previously unseen space providing little interaction. Norman’s (1999) answer was that the world would provide the required information and argued that understanding came from three major design concepts; conceptual models, constraints and affordances.

And although the original book is from 1988 with virtual world environments not yet realised, these design concepts still rang true in my view. Norman considered a consistent conceptual model to be the most important part of any design and I do agree with this. Even in my fantastical builds I have considered this of great importance. I recall arguing the case of a floating set of steps versus a floating seat. Throughout that build magic is marked as such by mists and sparkles; a consistency; and so floating steps with those aspects, in that world, made sense. The seat, just floating, with no indication of the magical force that kept it up, didn’t.

He also argues constraint and although I was often tempted to demonstrate my skills by filling my build space with models, in the end constraint was a more powerful partner.

His third concept is affordance, introduced in The Psychology of Everyday Things, but redefined in Affordance, conventions and design; as he stated:

Alas, yes, the concept has caught on, but not always with complete understanding. My fault: I was really talking about perceived affordances, which are not at all the same as real ones.

The designer cares more about what actions the user perceives to be possible than what is true. (Norman, 1999, p.39)

He goes on to define affordances more succinctly, distinguishing them from what might be considered the features of a graphical interface; visual feedback and conventions. And he argues that,

affordances, both real and perceived, play very different roles in physical products than they do in the world of screen-based products. (Norman, 1999, p.39)

and considered that, affordances play a relatively minor role in the latter case. Norman however had not yet encountered virtual world environments.

So this is essentially what I was investigating in my build; not the visual aspects that support feedback such as a sit icon, nor the conventions that allow building or animation or programming, but what I consider to be the affordances of a virtual world environment. The perceptions that allow one to feel, that engender emotion, that suspend disbelief and immerse you in the world; not the features used to create them. And in the Night build, it is my view that these affordances are as powerful an aspect of the design as the conceptual model and the constraints.

So, in an academic forum, I make no excuse for having used the term affordances, because this is what I meant.

Norman, D. (1999) Affordance, conventions and design. Interactions [online]. 6 (3), pp. 38-42. [Accessed 26 May 2013].

Norman, D. (1988) The Psychology of Everyday Things. New York. Basic Books.


7 thoughts on “In Defence of Jargon

  1. Hear hear. I’ve had the same critique and my defense is similar. As Mark Twain once said, “Use the right word, not its second cousin.” If the term affordance is the word that you have carefully chosen, then by all means use it.

    Perhaps the learning opportunity here is an explanation to learners that feature != affordance.

    • Thank you for the comment Matthew. And yes, I believe that is the learning opportunity here.

      What did surprise me, especially in an academic forum, is how instantly the first response came; prior to the responder even having the time to look at the initial article.

  2. Very well written.

    Throughout my life, reading has lead to regular visits to the dictionary. That is one of the ways we learn and grow intellectually. In the age of the Web, it’s amazingly easy to look up words, and come up to speed on a new concept in just a few minutes. The demand to avoid a word that is perfect for a concept, idea or thing is an example of an impoverished attitude towards knowledge and understanding.

    • I do agree Larry; case in point being that if I had not investigated the term further I would not have come across Norman’s work, which was pertinent to the research area I was involved with at the time.

      • Sometimes I find that’s the real gratification of looking up something new – the surprise(s) and significance of where it leads.

  3. Good argument Aaron, as ever 🙂 The term “affordances” was everywhere in VW papers and conferences for a while, then it became fashionable to try not to use it. I don’t really know why, to be honest. But you make the perfect rebuttal here.

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