Affordances of the iPhone Home Screen

Victoria Gomes-Boronat

In this week’s reading, Janet Murray starts by explaining that, “everything made of bits is part of the same digital medium,” (2012, p. 8) because it exploits the representational power of a computer and can be used for symbolic communication. According to Murray, the affordances provided by digital media can and should be considered within the context of procedural, participatory, encyclopedic, and spatial design strategies, therefore, I will analyze the affordances of the iPhone home screen interface within these contexts (2012, p. 23).

Murray argues that digital media is unique to earlier media of representation, such as books and art, because of its ability to “represent and execute conditional behaviors” (2012, p. 51). Murray cites the example of Joe Weizenbaum’s Eliza, an interactive program made possible by coded algorithms and procedural design. Weizenbaum’s Eliza program is reminiscent of and an antecedent to iPhone’s Siri.

The iPhone also acts as what Murray likes to call, a participatory medium, meaning that the relationship between the interactor and the iPhone is reciprocal, active, and sometimes susceptible to frustrating miscommunication (2012, p. 55). For example, the iPhone interface allows us to directly manipulate the home screen by creating folders/boxes, dragging/moving applications, and now with the new IOS update, personalize signifiers (more on that later). The human-computer interaction elicited by a participatory design also relies on the mental models formed based on the appearance and behavior of an object (Norman, as cited by Murray, 2012, p. 59). For example, when grouping applications together to organize the home screen, the iPhone uses the appearance of a box to signal to users that applications may be stored there, in the same way, that you would store files in a box at home. It is also important to note that the iPhone also scripts our interactions with it, for example, when rearranging the home screen, the interface indicates it is possible to edit the home screen by continually shaking the applications.

The most obvious affordance of the iPhone interface is access to a vast amount of storage space for data and information, classifying it as what Murray would call an encyclopedic medium. With regards to being a spatial medium, The iPhone home screen GUI creates a digital space where the interactor can navigate it through afforded actions like swiping through pages and tapping on applications. With the new IOS14 update, widgets can also now be created with shortcuts to/glimpses of various applications and their functionalities, for example. a weather widget that shows the weather throughout the day on one of the home screen pages. These various affordances allow users to interact with the digital space by tapping, dragging, reorganizing, and personalizing.

The iPhone IOS14 and many of android GUI’s now also allow users to more directly personalize their experience by affording them the functionality of creating their own signifiers. Norman (2013 as cited in Kaptelinin, 2013) explains the difference between affordances and signifiers by writing, “[a]ffordances define what actions are possible. Signifiers specify how people discover those possibilities.” Applications shown on the home screen have various affordances, however, their signifiers (the icons used for the application displays) are “any mark or sound, any perceivable indicator that communicates appropriate behavior to a person,” (Norman, as cited in Kaptelinin, 2013). Users are now able to create new signifiers, however, the affordances granted by the applications and the interface stay the same.

Kaptelinin, V. (2013). Affordances. In The Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction (2nd ed.).

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