Rhetorical Interfaces and Designed Affordances

via flickr user Eric Holsinger

via flickr user Eric Holsinger

I was reminded recently when reading rhetorician Carolyn Miller and Dawn Shepherd’s work on genre in the blogosphere (2009) that psychologist J.J. Gibson’s concept of “affordances” (further developed by his student Don Norman as “perceived affordances” and applied to the design of environments) emphasizes the ways that users’ experiences with interfaces are, in part, determined by the suasory qualities of its affordances. Miller and Shepherd note:

 An affordance, or a suite of affordances, is directional, it appeals to us, by making some forms of communicative interaction possible or easy and others difficult or impossible, by leading us to engage in or to attempt certain kinds of rhetorical actions rather than others. (p. 281)

In other words, what we can do with a designed tool or object is necessarily shaped somewhat by “those fundamental properties that determine just how the thing can be used” (Norman, 1988). By their very nature, these “fundamental properties” are suasory—they shape and limit and push us to interact, interpret, perceive, and do (or not). Interaction is never without some kind of inferred restriction, whether material or rhetorical. We are always working within what we perceive as some kind of designed thing or space with its own capabilities, as we understand them from our own situated perspectives.

Therefore any basic interface engagement with a digital tool requires us to quickly assess what can and cannot be done with it. We tinker and push upon its limits like nonverbal toddlers exploring the limits of their own behaviors, pushing and hitting and biting until someone or something tells us “no.” And it’s interesting to think about the many ways that we almost instinctively push back on designs’ efforts to persuade us to use them only in the ways that their designers intended.

I’m reminded of when I once watched an expert gamer pick up a new first-person shooter for the Xbox. The first thing he did was readjust the controller’s settings, inverting the X/Y axis. He flipped to the inventory screen, assessing the character’s weapons and their damage capabilities. Within seconds, he had read the map and determined an exit strategy. And surprisingly (to me), he spent the next ten minutes repeatedly figuring out all the ways his character could die. I instantly realized that I had been playing the game all wrong: I hadn’t been willing to fail miserably as a method of learning how to play the game better. I needed to play with the affordances of the game in order to gauge my ability to master it. I wasn’t going to get better if I wasn’t willing to make mistakes. And I wasn’t going to be able to make mistakes if I didn’t push back on what the game was designed to allow me to do.

[Truthfully, this is exactly what good writers do best: break and remake language in order to push  it to the limits of its own design. We value those texts that most ardently force us to think differently about what language can and cannot do.]

My interest is in everyday literacies and the ways that people make meaning with texts within particular contexts. I am deeply interested in how we almost instinctively and habitually push back on designed technological affordances and mold them to our liking. We constantly seem to expect different tools to behave the way we want them to, and when they don’t, we abandon them. I like to think of this process as a response to an almost ambient argument: a designed tool or application has its own perceived affordances that, as Gibson argued, have suasory qualities. When we take up these designs, we are responding to their insistence that we use them in the ways they were intended. What’s funny is how often we naturally resist the rhetorical “argument” that the designed object is trying to make. We almost always want it to be and do something else entirely.

When the Google Android operating system was introduced, I tried switching from my iPhone in hopes that I would enjoy the Android interface better. I was in favor of the principle of what Google was trying to do and wanted to give it a shot. But the first thing I did was configure all of the phone’s settings to make it more familiar to me (i.e., I changed its settings to make it more like the iPhone). Predictably, I eventually went back to my iPhone because, as I think I said at the time: “although it does all the same things my iPhone does, it’s not my iPhone.” (The same is true now as I write this on my Chromebook: I’m wishing I had chosen to bring my Macbook to write on instead. As much as I love the Chromebook, it’s not my Macbook.)

I think that over time, these habits and practices and ways of “talking back” to designs are the foundations of the kinds of “textual communities” we’re writing about today. If we agree that the term “community” is to be broadly construed (we could also use the terms “networks” or “affinity spaces”) then we might see how this way of organizing ourselves by our interactivity can represent the starting point for larger nodes and networks over time. We might gravitate toward certain digital literacy practices (e.g., collecting images; buying and selling objects; curating resources) based on how different tools—and their designed affordances—respond to our attempts to redesign them. That’s why people who use Flickr regularly are a different community than those who use Instagram, and those who spend their days on DeviantArt share some overlap with those who use Imgur.

The “arguments” that designed interfaces make by attempting to determine what users can and cannot do are almost always taken up and redesigned by their communities, and this is a natural and organic process. If we are to become real fans and experts in our chosen digital communities, we must necessarily respond to the interface’s attempts to convince. To participate in an online textual community, passive response to interface is not an option.

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