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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Friday, May 19, 2006

the affordances of chopsticks

the concept of affordances seems to have come up a lot lately. usually, this is in the Don Norman sense of what actions does your design afford? kwc has a great post on the Affordances of a Seven-Foot Egg. I was recently in Japan eating rice balls for breakfast, and for some odd reason, I began to wonder, what are the affordances of chopsticks?

people use chopsticks in all sorts of different ways. sometimes people use chopsticks to separate large portions of food into smaller bite-sized pieces. sometimes they use the back end of the chopsticks to serve food from common platters onto others' plates. those not skilled in the use of chopsticks will occasionally use them to skewer their food. as a disrespectful college student, a friend and I once found ourselves "fencing" with a pair of chopsticks. portioning, serving, skewering, and even "fencing" are all affordances of chopsticks.

about 10 years after bringing the concept of affordances to the attention of the design community, Norman later stated that he actually wished to distinguish between actual affordances, the actions that an object actually affords, and perceived affordances, those actions that a "user" perceives that an object may afford. these sets are certainly not coincident, and often there is no proper subset relation of either one to the other. what I think is interesting about this in the chopsticks example is that all the things described above are certainly among the actual affordances of chopsticks, and are obviously among the perceived affordances. however, to a novice user, where perceived affordances are supposed to be most important, there's not really anything about chopsticks that makes them appear to afford their "proper" usage. are chopsticks then a poor design? is this a case where conventions are far more important than affordances? are affordances even applicable to something like chopsticks, which (I believe) were not the result of a formal design process?

there's also a question about whether Japanese developed chopsticks because all their food could be eaten with them, or if they developed food that could be easily eaten with chopsticks because chopsticks are what they had. I think these two show technological and sociological determinism, respectively. (is the latter gastronomical determinism?) while this might be interesting to explore, it is aside from the main point here, which is the concept of affordances.

I've always thought the notion of affordances was sort of questionable. I mean, it's sort of like Orson Scott Card says: "Good will never out think evil, because evil thinks of things good folks can't." in the same way, those nefarious users will always think of things to do with our design that we good designers didn't think of. disrespectful college students will perceive that chopsticks afford "fencing." it may be that asking "what are the affordances of this object?" is akin to asking "what is art?", in that the process of answering the question is more important than actually arriving at an answer. or, it may be that I have missed the point entirely. however, I suspect that while the notion of affordances may be very useful in perceptual psychology, its applicability to design may have been somewhat over-emphasized.


  • Finally back from AAMAS. Funny you should post this right after I had a related dinner conversation in Japan. We were noting that chopsticks make it easier to regularly use nice dishes as you don't have to worry about the chopsticks damaging the dishes and bowls. You can also have a broader range of dishes (e.g. lacquerware) as they don't have to be designed to resist a steak knife. In Japanese restaurants like Ume No Hana, for example, you pay for your choice of dishes as well as choice of food.

    By Anonymous kwc, at Monday, May 22, 2006 11:42:00 AM  

  • According to Wikipedia as of 6/12/2006, chopsticks "were invented and developed in China about 3,000 to 5,000 years ago, although the exact date is unknown."

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Wednesday, July 12, 2006 10:10:00 PM  

  • hm, interesting. that actually makes sense, seeing how much the Japanese borrowed culturally from the Chinese.

    so the question still remains, were the Chinese eating food that was particularly amenable to consumption with chopsticks, or where the foods they cultivated and ate chosen on the basis of feasible consumption with chopsticks?

    (does the answer even matter?)

    By Blogger Jystar, at Wednesday, July 12, 2006 10:32:00 PM  

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