Affordances, affordability

While the word affordance is foreign even to native English speakers, the concept of affordability would seem to be used everyday. (This post is triggered by television news on the opening of Parliament in Canada today, where one of the new MPs was intent on ensuring affordability for Canadians).

As we’re progressing the Systems Changes vocabulary, perhaps affordability is a bridge between affordances (perceived by others in the environment) and capacities (potential behaviours within a whole).

Remarkably, a search on affordances and affordability turns up little on the Internet.

The top significant result from the search is in the context of mobile devices in education, as “How can we balance affordability and affordances in the design of mobile pedagogy?” | Mark Pegrum (U. Western Australia) | 2014 | Unesco Mobile Learning Week. The link to the presentation PDF is now dead.

However, the presentation was a precursor to book, so we can excerpt the idea from that.

– begin excerpt –

From affordability to affordances

In the discourses around digital technologies, we hear a great deal about the affordances of mobile devices, in terms of their social and educational impact and even, beyond this, their economic and political impact. But we must remember that affordability precedes affordances.

In the developed world, it’s the affordability of mobile devices that has encouraged their spread throughout the population. This is why we’re now in a position to discuss the social and educational affordances of smart devices, with their third generation (3G) or fourth generation (4G) connectivity and their smorgasbord of apps. On the other hand, it’s easy to forget that lack of affordability remains an issue, leading to a patchy uptake of the iPods, iPhones and iPads that we hear so much about – along with other similar devices – and introducing equity challenges in Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) models.

But it’s in the developing world that affordability matters most. As hardware prices continue to fall, a ‘ “mobile first” development trajectory’ is becoming evident (World Bank, 2012, p.3). Africa has the world’s highest growth rate in mobile phones (Isaacs, 2012a), which are described by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) as the ‘mass ICT technology of choice for Africa’ (cited in ibid., p.12). In Latin America, meanwhile, there were an estimated 17 computers per 100 people in 2011, but there was already almost one mobile phone per person (Lugo & Schurmann, 2012). The limited affordability of desktop and laptop computers, along with the limited affordability and coverage of fixed telecommunications infrastructure, means that mobile devices are often the best, or only, option for internet access in the developing world (Deloitte/GSMA, 2012). This is borne out by statistics: although mobile devices accounted for 15% of global net traffic by the end of 2012 (see Figure 1.1), some 58% of web traffic was already mobile-based in Nigeria and Zimbabwe in that year (Deloitte/GSMA, 2012). [p. 6]

But affordability is relative. While an average European spends a little over 1% of their monthly income on mobile communication, an average African spends 17% (STT & Grosskurth, cited in Vosloo, 2012). What’s more, the average African gets a lot less for their money. The low-end phones typical of the developing world, with their limited functional ity and connectivity, offer far fewer of the affordances we hear about in the developed world. By the end of 2011, 90% of the world’s population was covered by 2G networks, but only 45% by 3G networks (ITU, 2012). In 2012, nearly 90% of mobile subscriptions in Africa were still restricted to older 2G or 2.5G networks (Gallen, 2012). We need to remember these limitations in projects that seek to broaden access to educational opportunities. Although it makes sense to plan with an eye to future mobile
expansion in developing regions, our planning must remain grounded in the – long – present. [pp. 6-7]

Of course, even when their affordability reaches a level that allows them to become widespread, new technologies don’t lead to social changes by themselves (the technological determinism fallacy); nor can we say that social changes alone have led to the rise of new technologies (the social determinism fallacy). Rather, society and technology influence each other, a view often called a social shaping perspective (Baym, 2010; Selwyn, 2013; Williams & Edge, 1996). The social context promotes certain lines of technological development and certain uses of technologies; the technological context amplifies some social practices and constrains or undermines others. The obvious uses of new technologies, seen within a larger social framework, are what we might term their affordances – put simply, the purposes to which they seem most easily to lend themselves.

It’s possible to identify certain affordances of mobile technologies which are bound up in the social and educational changes we see happening around us. Leaving aside for the moment the question of affordability, to which we’ll return later, it’s time to take a look at these affordances. [p. 7]

Source: Pegrum, Mark. 2014. “The Mobile Landscape.” In Mobile Learning: Languages, Literacies and Cultures , edited by Mark Pegrum, 1–23. New Language Learning and Teaching Environments. London: Palgrave Macmillan UK.

– end excerpt –

The idea that “affordability precedes affordances” raises questions as to systems perspectives. We might take the mobile device case as an example. The issue has been less about whether personal computing devices can or cannot be produced; it’s more about whether manufacturers have the capacities to produce those devices at a cost at which buyers can afford to pay the price.

Mobile devices can be seen as an affordance to learners. The affordability of a mobile device rests on the capacity of the manufacturer to produce at sufficiently low cost for a sufficiently large volume that economies of scale work out.

There’s a Wikipedia article on Social shaping of technology.

Given that in some cases, we will use the term affordance in our client interactions, it mght be an idea to use wikipedia (or anything else that will popup on a search) to support our education process e.g. what affordance is, what it is not, misconceptions, affordance vs affordability.

Happy to take a crack at this if everyone agrees.


@engdan Yes, web searches are where people might go first.

Not only does the entry turn up on Wikipedia at , but you might also look into the background chatter at . (It’s interesting that it’s considered only a Grade C article!)

One of the challenges that you may have (which might or might not influence your clarification) is the distinction between …

There’s a comparison at " The Glossary of Human Computer Interaction" by Mads Soegaard at

I’ve been coming at this from the pure J.J. Gibson perspective, that leads to Tim Ingold. Don Norman (on, on Wikipedia) is much better known.

When I lecture to master’s and Ph.D. students, I care about the differences. @engdan may be a better judge if anyone really cares.

Who Really Cares?

We should honour the audience.

For academic integrity, I believe that the appropriate references need to be resolved and clarified.

For the practitioner community and their clients, we need to let the audience know that we have dumbed it down and made it more contextual e.g. case studies or examples would be useful here.


There’s a nuance between creating affordances vs. surfacing affordances via attention. Or is there? Hmm.

The mobile device example is about using resources to create affordances. Whereas maybe a local pub in African city might be an affordance to communal activity (enjoy the football game together instead of watching it on mobile device at home.)

@zaid_khan, you’ve actually hit on definitional differences between J.J. Gibson and Don Norman.

The J.J. Gibson perspective essentially is an interactive one, i.e. it isn’t an affordance if the perceiver doesn’t perceive it. Thus, the trash can on a Mac isn’t an affordance to eject a CDROM, unless the user knows that dropping the CD on the trash can causes the eject.

From a production perspective, putting an eject feature on a trash can creates a feature that may or may not perceived. Is the responsibility of the designer on the thing, or on the interaction? Does this mean that better documentation is required, or training?

This is an ongoing question in design.

"How Apple Is Giving Design A Bad Name | Don Norman and Bruce Tagnazzini | Nov. 10, 2015 | Fast Company at

“The Anti-Mac Interface” | Jakob Nielsen | Aug. 1, 1996 | Nielsen Norman Group at

When we pile on a service perspective, as compared to a production perspective, the arguments get deeper.

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