Affordances and disaffordances in digital workplace technology

I am working out loud this academic quarter, a bit, in conjunction with two courses I co-teach with some amazing colleagues.

What’s coming together is some inspiration on the intersection of work we do in using and applying design practices – design thinking – and the work we do exploring organizational knowledge sharing, learning and social technologies in the workplace.

The inspiration comes from Sasha Costanza-Chock’s book Design Justice – Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need.

Costanza-Chock opens the book with this line: “This book is about the relationship between design and power.”

Throughout the next 240+ pages, Constanza-Chock asks us to critically assess that relationship and to ask more of design practice. A key to that challenge is to actively reject design’s bias toward a universal user or participant, and instead see the world through an intersectional lens, where race, class, gender and other factors combine to systematically oppress different communities of people.

I am summarizing here, and ineffectively. The book (which I am re-reading as we engage in coursework this quarter) is much more than a critical review of design practices. It is that, but also a history of social movements and technology, and an aspirational call for those of us who sense the opportunity for co-creation and who have fallen short in its pursuit. See The Learning Journey: From Empathy to Co-Creation for my muddling through on that topic.

The inspiration for this post comes from a topic we are covering in one of the courses I co-teach: MSLOC 430 Creating and Sharing Knowledge.

This is the week where we ask students to step back and consider the common mindset that many of us fall into: Technology determines our behavior. Features and functions “make us” do things in a specified manner. We have little or no agency.

We open the door on this mindset with a set of readings that explores an affordances view of digital workplace technology. Treem & Leonardi describe the value of taking such a view. Traditionally, we might look at the features and functions of the technology, which “focuses people’s attention on what the technology itself does (or does not do).” An affordances approach instead focuses our attention on “the ways the technology becomes mutually constituted with the organizational context in which it is embedded.” (Treem & Leonardi, 2012)

Affordances of digital workplace technology may be described as including visibility, persistence, editability and association (people-to-people, people-to-content). (Treem & Leonardi, 2012).

A very deep rabbit hole opens up here. But my point is that reading Treem & Leonardi in our course opens students’ eyes to the idea of “mutually constituted” and shifts the frame of analysis from bells and whistles to new types of capabilities.

Where Constanza-Chock comes in is to ask us to continually consider the distribution of affordances among different kinds of people. The concepts of disaffordances and dysaffordances are also introduced to help us evaluate that distribution across communities.

Constanza-Chock asks us to consider whether any “given affordance is equally perceptible to all people, or whether it systematically privileges some kinds of people over others.” (Chock, p 37). Examples of this may be most clear when we consider people with different visual, hearing or motor skills and abilities. But we might also consider culture, life experiences and learning.

A second consideration is whether a perceptible affordance is equally available to all. Constanza-Chock uses the example of stairs. Stairs afford the ability to move from one level of a structure to another. The affordance is perceptible to people of many different types of mobility capabilities but are unavailable to people whose type of mobility makes stairs unusable.

“An object’s affordances are never equally perceptible to all, and never equally available to all; a given affordance is always more perceptible, more available, or both, to some kinds of people. Design justice brings this insight to the fore and calls for designers’ ongoing attention” to it. (Chock, p39)

Disaffordances and dysaffordances are additional ways in which to frame the relationship between a person and potential affordance.

Disaffordances act to constrain some action. A lock on a door constrains entry without a key. A facial lock on a phone constrains access to the phone. An affordance for some may be a disaffordance for others. Stairs afford access for some, but constrain access for others.

Dysaffordances require some persons to misidentify themselves to access a capability. Constanza-Chock uses the example of an individual who identifies as nonbinary being required by a system to identify as either male or female in order to proceed.

In a conversation with co-instructors about these concepts, we considered what examples we might share to illustrate the unequal distribution of affordances in the context of digital workplace technology.

Immediately, my colleague Keeley Sorokti pointed to “persistence” – the affordance label created by Treem & Leonardi to describe how content in many social platforms persists…indefinitely. The value of persistence, in combination with visibility and association, is the foundation for all of our work in creating digital workplace communities. “Working out loud,” visible work, meta-knowledge (knowing what others know) are among the ways we talk about it.

But what Keeley pointed to is to consider persistence as disaffordance. In speaking with students and with members of digital workplace communities, the idea that their contributions “persist” is a barrier to even those of us who come from privileged backgrounds. What if what I say is wrong, or seen as naive? It will persist, a record of our wrong thinking or naïveté.

In that light, persistence is clearly a barrier we might address by paying attention to the culture of our online communities. However, I am now inspired by Costanza-Chock to think even further: Are we not even seeing community members, at all, whose life experience or standpoint in the intersectional matrix constrains their participation due to visibility or persistence or…?

I am intrigued to follow this thread of thinking across the ways that we think about, and value, the role of digital workplace collaboration technologies.

References

Costanza-Chock, S. (2020). Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need. United States: MIT Press.

Treem, J., & Leonardi, P. (2012). Social Media Use in Organizations Exploring the Affordances of Visibility, Editability, Persistence, and Association. Communication Yearbook, 36, 143–189.

One thought on “Affordances and disaffordances in digital workplace technology

  1. Thanks for sharing this Jeff. I have always thought of the digital workplace technology and social media affordances of persistence and visibility as being key to supporting learning and knowledge sharing in organizations that work to build a learning and working out loud culture. Many colleagues at various orgs have shared their discomfort with their posts and comments in enterprise social networking tools being so visible. I have known this is a barrier for many people and have worked to support colleagues on their journey to becoming more comfortable sharing their ideas and questions online. I am now beginning to think about this in new ways through the lens of disaffordances as shared in the Design Justice book (still need to read the whole thing). No answers yet…just sitting with the questions to help me unlearn and reframe to inform future practice. I wonder if every affordance has an equal an opposite disaffordance?

    Liked by 1 person

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