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Motivational Affordances

I am pretty sure that most of you are quite familiar with the concept of design affordances, originally proposed by Donald Norman and outlined in his widely read book the Design of Everyday Things. Just in case you are not, design affordances are the action possibilities perceived by the user from the design (as mediated by the context). Human factors designers have been using this idea to create effective designs and to evaluate the designs of others to assess their effectiveness.

My Take

Today, I want to share a variation on this theme presented by Sebastian Deterding, a true thought leader in the area of motivational design and gamification, called a motivational affordance. We have covered motivation quite extensively here (for example here and here), with a particular emphasis on the power of intrinsic motivation. In the classic formulation of Deci and Ryan, intrinsic motivation can emerge when the user feels that he or she has autonomy to use the design or not, control over how he or she uses the design, and some kind of social interaction related to the use of the design.

Motivation is afforded when the relation between the features of an object and the abilities of a subject allow the subject to experience the satisfaction of suchneeds when interacting with the object. E.g., relative to my skills and knowledge, this Sudoku puzzle in front of me affords an opportunity to experience myself as competent when interacting with it.

Deterding divides a system into two sets of attributes: attributes of the context (the task, the environment, the user) and attributes of the design (the design elements). Each of these can have motivational affordances and they will interact with each other during use of the system. But while the motivations of context attributes have been studied at length, the motivational affordances of design elements have not. But they are just as important.

He proposes that just as design elements have functional affordances, they also have motivational affordances. Does the design element convey to the user that it gives the user autonomy, control, and social interaction in the same immediate and direct way that it conveys its functional attributes? Does it instead convey that it focuses on extrinsic motivation such as points or rewards?

Your Turn

Think about some of the design elements that you use, either in your design work or in some of your favorite products. Do they have motivational affordances? Do they speak to the user, impressing on her that it will give her autonomy, control, social interaction, or tangible rewards? Would small changes to the design improve the motivation that it affords?

Image Credit: Paul Cross

6 thoughts on “Motivational Affordances”

  1. Marc: Here is an interesting example at play currently…the motivational affordance of the Apple Watch.

    Based on my personal experience the new Apple Watch creates an advanced form of motivational affordance which I would characterize as motivational affordance conflicts. When engaging with the watch during early use-cycles (first few days) there is a constant conflict between which task sequence and interface to employ when seeking information…either the Watch or the iPhone? This back and forth reduces motivational affordance for the watch which due to wonderful industrial design, is initially rich in motivation affordance. However, over time the motivational affordance of the Watch degrades due to the apparent conflict in interaction frameworks.

    Therefor, the net motivational affordance for the combined system is initially compromised. The longer term impact is another matter. I have the impression (personal opinion) that the Apple Watch is a game changing UX but too early to tell. The key problem with the current version of the Apple Watch is the use of multi-modal interface elements and zero learning transfer.

    Charles L Mauro CHFP
    Founder
    Mauro Usability Science & UX Optimization
    @PulseUX

    1. Great point Charles. I think we can title this “New Toy Motivation.” Whenever you get a new toy, you have some motivation to use it. But how long that lasts will depend largely on whether it makes anything easier or better compared to how you used to do it, and whether the transition costs are worth the new benefits.

  2. Mark,

    Of course motivation is very important in design. But I think the term ‘motivation affordance’ is problematic for many reasons. But there is another word, that pre-dates affordances that was specifically designed to capture the motivational aspects of the ecology. This is Kurt Lewin’s term “Valence.” In my view Affordances (what we can do); Specification/Information (what we can perceive, e.g., feedback) and Satisfying (Valence) are the three legs of the Triadic Semiotic model of meaning processing.
    Understanding coordination across these three legs is essential. But I think it is also important to keep the three sources of constraint distinct.

    John Flach

  3. PS. Valence – what we want to do. What is attractive?
    Affordance – what we can do. What is possible?
    Information – what we can perceive. What is available as feed forward or feedback?

    All three components are essential for understanding adaptive, control in an ecology. Or meaning or sensemaking in a semiotic system.

    1. You know a blog is good when it attracts comments with this sort of content.
      John Flach, my understanding of the semiotic triad is not the same as yours, nonetheless those three ideas are striking. I’m looking forward to more articles, and more comments.

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