Affordances of Digital Media

Mary Margaret Herring

One part of this week’s reading that I found to be particularly interesting was Janet Murray’s (2012) argument that new media should instead be called digital media. She writes, “[c]alling objects made with computing technology ‘new’ media obscures the fact that it is the computer that is the defining difference not the novelty” (Murray, 2012, p. 8). Since this computing technology is central to the way that we interact with digital media, I’d like to apply Murray’s ideas to the screen interface on my laptop. To do this, I will start by examining Murray’s argument that there are four affordances of digital media and then discuss how those affordances shape the way that we interact with digital media.

Murray argues that digital media are procedural, participatory, spatial, and encyclopedic (Murray, 2012). Because computational technologies are programmed to execute conditional behaviors, Murray (2012) argues that media are procedural. Further, digital technologies are participatory because they are scripted for both the user and the machine. This allows the interactor and machine to interact in a way that is meaningful to each other (Murray, 2012). Murray (2012) also states that digital media are spatial because it creates digital space and encyclopedic because they are able to store more forms of information than any medium before could. While all affordances are certainly interesting, I will focus on the encyclopedic and spatial properties that digital media afford.

I will apply these affordances to the home screen on a MacBook. Because computers are able to store large amounts of data, many people use digital media to store a large number of files and applications. The home screen creates a digital space where the interactor can access their files placed on the desktop and applications in the toolbar. To navigate this digital space, the laptop affords actions like using the trackpad or mouse. Similarly, text or shortcuts may be entered on the keyboard. These affordances allow users to interact with the space by clicking, dragging, and typing. Often users will organize files on their desktop. The designers of the Mac’s graphical user interface worked with the affordances offered by the laptop to allow the user to interact with content on the screen. As the home screen demonstrates, the encyclopedic and spatial properties that digital media afford enable users to interact with media in new ways.

But, the true genius behind the way that the graphical user interface (GUI) comes from signifiers rather than affordances. Norman (2013 as cited in Kaptelinin, 2013) distinguishes between affordances and signifiers writing, “[a]ffordances define what actions are possible. Signifiers specify how people discover those possibilities.” For example, Murray (2012) notes that file folders on the desktop can be renamed and organized like physical folders. This element of the graphical user interface (GUI) mimics conventions of the physical world and makes the organization of information intuitive to the user. In this way, the folder signifies the possibilities of organizing information on the computer by drawing on the user’s prior experience with physical file folders.

A brief tangent: In undergrad I conducted some A/B testing on a news sharing social media site that I created. While I wanted to include research about affordances in this study to motivate the modifications that I was making to the site, I found it extremely hard to understand. After this reading, I now understand the difference between affordances and signifiers and realized that I was actually looking to modify signifiers on the site rather than affordances. This clarification of a research keyword opens up a ton of possibilities for my future research!


References

Kaptelinin, V. (2013). Affordances. In The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction (2nd ed.). https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/book/the-encyclopedia-of-human-computer-interaction-2nd-ed/affordances.

Murray, J.H. (2012). Inventing the medium: Principles of interaction design as a cultural practice. MIT Press.