Humans in Accidental Design

Design outcomes can often be serendipitous.  A designer means for an object to achieve one thing, but it actually achieves another.  This idea probably already exists but if it doesn’t, I would like to coin it:

The Accidental Affordance.  

In this instance I am making reference to Don Norman’s definition of affordance.  That is:

An affordance is a quality of an object, or an environment, which allows an individual to perform an action… and is readily perceivable by the actor.

In short, a use for something that someone can perceive.

So why the accidental affordance? Here I am just making reference to an outcome as which was not foreseen by the designer - an affordance that was not designed.  

A famous example of this is twitter.  Twitter was originally intended as an SMS site to communicate with a small group. However, it’s most famous uses now extend to globally networked connections, real-time comments through to organising revolutions. Twitter has even ended up turning the hashtag, which was originally an accidental affordance, into a major part of its business model.

Even if you don’t use Twitter, you probably still touch an accidental affordance every day. Levi’s (and pretty much any other company that makes jeans) have always put a fifth pocket nested inside the right front pocket of their pants. This pocket was originally intended as a place to put a pocket watch, but as Levi’s itself pointed out in one of its most famous ads, it’s almost never used for a watch:

Watches have moved from pockets to wrists, but they’re still creating accidental affordances. My watch is a prime example. My wife needed an analogue watch for an exam, so with the idea I’d take it afterwards, we bought a man-sized one with a big clear face.  Here’s the watch:

The first night I was wearing it we went to a concert and I looked down to check the time.  It was dark, but the light automatically came on when I looked down!  I was stoked! Magic watch! It looked like this:

After a second wondering at the amazing design, I realised that it wasn’t magic.  I was just extending my wrist and the back of my hand was contacting the light button on the side of the watch.  You can see it happen in this mega-short little video:

Even though it’s an accident, I find it really useful, and other people seem to wow at it a little when they don’t expect the light to come on.

Similarly I bought a glif from studio neat to hold my iPhone in a tripod.  This was mainly talk hands free to my lovely wife during travel. It’s easier to drink scotch that way.  That’s her on the screen below:

Another problem I have had in travel is that my headphones always end up in a tangle.  Turns out the grove in the glif helps me out with an accidental affordance:  

Perhaps the greatest example of an accidental affordance is milk crates.

Originally intended for this:

There are at least 101 accidental affordances including shelves…

… chairs…

… even street art.

In fact, one of the best unintended affordances for a milk crate - use as a 12 inch record crate - was designed out when milk was switched to metric.  They are now a couple of centimetres too short. Some say this change was intentional as its use as a record crate was a leading cause of theft.

So why is this important? Well people think of good design as sparks of genius.  But really mostly it’s through iterations and accidents.  However, the accidents are normally not perfect.

For example, my dad bought exactly the same watch, partially expecting ‘automatic’ light. It does not work the way he wears it.  In fact, it only works for me 80 percent of the time.  It would be better if it worked every time, for everyone.  

Similarly, wrapping my headphones around my glif also covers the screen, and is only mostly secure.  It would better if there was a way to wrap them up totally securely that didn’t cover the screen.

Also, whilst old milkcrates were good for storing records, they are not stackable whilst doing so.  The records poked out the top.  This was rectified in a newer commercially available design:

So, be on the lookout for an accidental affordance. You might just be able to steal an almost design and adapt it into a perfect one.  It might be the next penicillin… or just a way to light a watch up at night.

As Don Norman himself said:

The value of a well designed object is when it has such a rich set of affordances that the people who use it could do things that the designer never imagined.

- Tristan


- Tom


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