Emotional Reflection

Currently, I read Donald A. Norman's book "emotional design - or: why we love (or hate) everyday things". The book is really inspiring for designing and developing learning technologies for non-formal and informal learning. However, to understand it better it helped me to leave it for a few days and look at the user statistics of the Team Space. I found that a weak hint that Karel Kreijn's affordance and group awareness have emotional implications on learning built in.

For my experiment I used variations of Karel's group awareness widgets. The initial idea of these widgets is that the users become aware of their surrounding social space. This awareness stimulates the users to participate in community activities, as Karel concludes. In my variation of Karel's ideas I postulate that different types of such group awareness widgets affect the different phases of the learning process and of community involvement. Now, while the tools are running in the wild I get a feeling how affordance relates to the weak structured learning processes.

Affordance - attract people to do things

The core idea of affordance is that humans are interactive beings and that man made tools come with a built-in meaning about how the thing has to be used. Our everyday life is structured with good or bad designed affordances. They help us to understand the meaning and purpose of things in our environment - and it can be used to mislead our perception of the environment.

For example, whenever I visit my girl friend in Graz (Austria) where she's currently working I come from the city center by bus. In order to get home I have to cross a main road to get from the bus station to the other side where her appartment is unsing an "on demand" traffic light. These traffic lights have a button for pedestrians, so they can cross the road savely, but do not stop traffic if nobody wants to cross. This particular traffic light has a litte box attached to it that has a big button like shaped thing in the upper half and a printed circle in the lower half. Everytime I want to cross the road I first press in the big button shaped thing in the upper half of the box - however with no effect. Then I remember that the actual button is the printed cycle in the lower half of the box - the button like thing in the upper half is actually a back lid sign that tells you something like "push lower button to cross the road", but it is only lid after the lower button was pressed.

This example goes well with the concept of affordance, which basically states that button shaped things attract us to push them, and signs tend to attract us to follow their instructions, whether this is the correct usage or not. In that sense, the box at the traffic light is a basic misconception of industrial design with regard to affordance, because the thing that looks like a button is in fact not a button.

Another example about how affordance forces us to interactions comes again from a traffic light. This particular one is a traffic light for pedestrians right in front of the University of Innsbruck. This traffic light has also a little box at the height where our hands can easily reach it. This box looks similar to boxes at other traffic lights across the city, but while all other boxes have a clear button to push, this box has no such button. Instead it has a strange embossed symbol that looks like a T that fell upside down, with an upwards pointing arrow attach to it on the lower side. It is definitely not a symbol that is used for the offical symbol language of traffic signs. Anyways, this box has a tiny button on the lower side. If you walk towards the traffic light you cannot see the button but only the embossed symbol. If you press that hidden button it makes click - and after a while the traffic light turns green for you. Now it is important to know, that this traffic light is actually linked to another traffic light about 200 meters down the road at a major cross road. So if you push that strange button or not, the light turns green after some time in either case.

Knowing all this I spent about half of a nice summer afternoon with a friend sitting on a bench near that traffic light and we counted the people who pressed that button or not. We were surprised that about two thirds of the people who arrived first at the traffic light pressed the hidden button - I was surprised because that was before I learned about the concept of affordance.

Affordance, group activities, and reflection

OK, with industrial design it is easier to explain affordance. However, Karel has shown that widgets on computer displays offer such hidden messages to users that explain how a system should and could be used. In particular the visualisation of group activities have implications to a user about how to contribute to the group.

While reading Norman's book and looking at the user statistics, I am get the feeling that Karel actually observed something else than affordance to group activities. Instead, it appears that such widgets attract "emotional reflexion", which then may lead to group activities in a later stage. In that sense these widgets have some kinds of reflexion affordance. I.e. the users get attracted by the widget and interprete the provided information. Based on this kind of reflexion on information the users decide about the next activities to take. That implies that there is no direct link between the activities and the information provided by a widget, but a connection via a reflection and decision making process, which would perfectly fit to Buttler and Winne's model of motivation and self regulation.

With regard to the Team Space indicators I call this "emotional reflexion" because the content and the presentation of these widgets are not content sensitive. This means that the kind of reflection is also not strictly content dependent. This is the major difference to the common understanding of reflexion, in which people think about concepts, processes, contents and tasks, and compare the results with their expectations and experiences. Of course emotional reflexion is not completely independent from these kinds of thoughts, but while reflexion implies deeper considerations on various dimensions, emotional reflexion is at the doorstep of reflexion that decides if incoming information requires more attention. Just a bit like emotions that always come before thought, as Norman points out in the first chapters of his book.