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Pulling a push door: is efficient design also the preferred one?

by Kiriaki Koutmeridou , 11.07.2013

If you ever found yourself in the depicted situation, you must remember the embarrassment and the self-accusation after making the wrong choice. But let’s pause for a second. Why is pulling this door your fault? Aren’t handles supposed to be pulled?  Certain objects trigger specific actions and this is one of the many examples. If an object is not designed properly, chances are that people will try to act upon it in an inefficient way.

The idea behind this is the notion of ‘affordances’. The term was coined by Gibson (1979) to describe the properties of an object that immediately relate to specific actions. For example, a switch affords flipping, a ball affords kicking or throwing or catching etc... One object may afford multiple actions. Experimental psychology and neuroscience studies have repeatedly shown that merely looking at an object automatically triggers the possible action plans that it affords, even when there is no intention to act upon it (e.g. Chao & Martin, 2000; Tucker & Ellis, 2001). Referring back to the opening paragraph, the ‘pulling’ motor plan is activated just by looking at the door handle; thus, it is no surprise that this is the preferred action performed.

Provided that the product design is appropriate, the formation of multiple motor plans might provide a speed advantage in action execution (Yarrow, Brown, & Krakauer, 2009). Behavioural studies demonstrated that responses to objects are faster when they match the actions that these objects naturally trigger. Tucker and Ellis (1998) expected that the left-right orientation of an object and the hand used to grasp it will have an effect on the action’s speed. Indeed, response times were reduced when the objects were placed in such a way that their handles favoured the responding hand (for example, right orientation for the right hand). In another study, Ellis and Tucker (2000) asked participants to perform grasping or pinching grips while seeing objects that triggered one or the other action. Responses were faster when participants were performing an action that was compatible with the object presented and slower when an object triggering a different action plan was shown. These findings support the idea that objects’ affordances produce related motor plans and give a speed advantage.

Can this motor activation inform us of anything beyond the elicitation of a faster response when a congruent action is performed? As you might suspect, yes. The mental simulation of appropriate actions that an object elicits may also provide information about the difficulty of the interaction. People are thought to opt for actions that are easier which also means preference for objects that are easier to act upon. Growing evidence supports that the motor activation an object elicits is closely linked to preference for that object. Beilock & Holt (2007) showed how skilled typists prefer combinations of letters that are easy to type, even when they are not typing.  Ping, Dhillon, & Beilock (2009) demonstrated that people prefer graspable objects, such as spatulas, when the objects’ handles are oriented in such a way to make them easy to grasp. Shen & Sengupta (2012) impaired participants’ ability to simulate reaching for an object by making them to hold another object with their dominant hand. They hypothesised that this would impede the mental representation of the action which in turn should affect preference. Indeed, the object was less preferred in the condition where the dominant hand was restricted.

Understanding how people build close relationships with products will facilitate the development of not just usable but also desirable products. The concept of affordances seems to be the appropriate vehicle towards such an understanding. People appear to mentally simulate the action that an object would afford if they were to act on it, such as picking up a spatula or typing on a keyboard, and their preference judgment varies according to how fluent this action would be. In cases where people are unable to simulate the action (e.g. when their hands are full), the evaluation of the object is lower. The ability to interact or even simulate an interaction with a product affects its evaluation and subsequently, people’s preferences. Thus, if we can understand affordances and their impact on preferences we can contribute to efficient product design  in addition to predicting future trends.



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Gibson, J. J. (1979). The ecological approach to visual perception. Boston: HoughtonMifflin.

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