Friday, February 16, 2007

Has Web 2.0 made affordances like so yesterday?--
Granted, the fact that I am 57 years old might be a contributing factor here, but I am seeing what I consider to be a disturbing trend in web design.

Editable fields look like read-only until the user mouses over them. In technical terms, the trend is to reduce the number of affordances (using visual clues to communicate that objects can be acted on) and to rely instead on applying pliancy effects (changing the appearance of objects when focus is applied) to show when actions can be taken on them.

For example, if I open a meeting notice on my Google calendar, I see what appears to be a group of read-only fields, such as "What," "When," "Where," and so forth. But if I move my mouse over any of those fields, they change appearance and background color to indicate that I can edit them.

Here is my concern: If I did not know that the "What" field (for example) could be edited, why would I move my mouse there? It seems that taking away the affordance of showing the field as editable has reduced the ability of the box to show the user how it can be used.

Is this a user assistance issue at all? I say yes because the application has lost some of its effectiveness to instruct the user what information can be edited. Is the solution to cover that in Help? (must....control....hand....of....death)

If you see this happening on your applications, fight it and point out the loss of instructional content within the UI.


Jeff said...

So to follow that, then clicking on a blank time slot on the calendar would never occur to the user as it has no affordance, and actually offers no change in pliancy when you mouse over it.
I agree that the affordance is not present for the user, but I may not suggest (and I don't believe you are either) having all of those fields open up in 'edit mode'. What may be more beneficial is to have a small link beside the text that says [edit] or underline the sentence so that at least the user is aware that they can do something. This would then offer the user that clue that this where the edit is engaged. And it may be more than just a text box that gets presented once 'edit' is engaged..As in the case of google calendar and repeating meetings, it opens up all of the scheduling controls, but the link they initiated it from is a summary line of the meeting time.

Mike Hughes said...

Interesting observation about the blank time slots on the calendar. I think our paper calendar metaphor is so strong that we have high expectations of being able to enter data in the blank time slots. (I had to go back and check, you're right, there isn't even any pliancy and yet I fully expected to be able to enter data upon clicking in a time slot.)In the case of clicking on an existing appointment and getting a display that seemingly contains read only fields (based upon conventions that I am used to from years of other applications) I think the affordances there would have been useful. What is the downside to providing affordances in this case? What is the advantage to not having affordances? (Not rhetorical questions; I ask in all sincerity.)

Martha said...

This is really interesting to me because it touches on an area of significant personal/professional interest: how gaming user assistance metaphors will affect non-gaming applications in the future (and they will!). I believe that this particular trend – away from affordances and toward pliancy – could be a first sign of gaming’s influence on user assistance.

As a first step in my work in this area, I’ve spent a good deal of time observing tweens and teens playing games, and questioned them about how they know what to do/where to go/etc. Many times the answer is to just go click on or hover over an object. They consider this an entirely natural navigation method. Their vast experience of things that are and are not interactive gives them much better odds for choosing interactive screen elements than people who don’t play a lot of games. For this to be a useful method in non-recreational applications where time efficiency is important, we’ll need to design some way to improve users’ odds in the absence of a mental white/black list of clickable objects.

Mike Hughes said...

I'd like to try to synthesize what I've gotten from Jeff's and Martha's comments. As gamers become application users, they will fully expect to explore the UI, in fact, that will be their natural behavior. Jeff's point is that good design will probably make most objects of interest interactive in some way (e.g., to edit, dive deeper, do something with the object) therefore the user will move to the object anyway. On our work WIKI where I made a similar post, someone pointed out that a Portal probably doesn't need the unnecessay visual clutter of underlining links because the user expectation is so strong that they are links--similar to Jeff's point about not needing affordances in the calendar date slots.

I have a granddaughter on the way. I envision her sitting on my knee someday saying, "Grampa Hootie, tell me what affordances were like." [sigh]