Monthly Archives: July 2012

Habit and Behavior Engineering Toolbox: Affordances

Ever wonder why some of your users can’t find a certain download/buy/play button, even though to you, its location is clear as day? Or maybe you’ve wondered why some gamers constantly get stuck at a certain point in your game because they didn’t think a hookshot could be used there or that a certain block was movable. Well, in most cases, the reason this happens is because of an issue with something called “perceived affordance.”

So before we go any further we need to put you through a crash course in what affordances are. So bear with me here, I promise it’ll be worth your time.

Affordance Crash Course

Affordances are the qualities of an object that allow a user to perform a certain action. For example, a ball affords bouncing, coke bottles afford drinking, laptops afford opening and closing and headphones afford listening.

Perceived affordances on the other hand are what a user thinks an object can do. This button looks like it downloads this app, this door looks like it can be pushed open and this block looks like it can be moved are all examples of perceived affordances. To put it simply, affordances are what an object CAN do and perceived affordances are what an object LOOKS LIKE it can do.

So what is the relationship between perceived affordance and affordance? Well lucky for you, a man by the name of William Gaver created a very helpful framework (see figure below):

Affordance vs Perceived Affordance

As you can see in the figure, there are 4 possible “slots,” so lets run through them really fast.

  • A correct rejection is when you don’t perceive an object to afford something which it doesn’t. For example, when you don’t perceive a car as being able to fly and it doesn’t (unless it does, in which case I’d love to hitch a ride).
  • A hidden affordance occurs when an object affords something but you did not perceive it to be able to. While browsing the internet have you ever found yourself looking for the download/buy/play button when you later find out the “button” you were looking for was just some plain text? This is a case of a hidden affordance. The text afforded to download/buy/play but you did not perceive it being able to.
  • A false affordance occurs when you think an object does something when in reality… it doesn’t. Ever walk up to a door, push it to open and instantly feel stupid because you were supposed to pull? Yeah, that’s what is called a false affordance. You perceived the door to afford pushing when it actually only afforded pulling.
  • Lastly is perceptible affordance. This occurs when what you perceive an object being able to do, matches up with what it can do.

Now that you’ve had a crash course on affordances and a have a nice framework to boot, let me explain why affordances are a very important behavior and habit engineering tool.

Why they are important

From the websites we visit to the games and activities we do on Facebook, our brain is constantly on the lookout for patterns in everything we do. It’s one of the ways our brain creates habits. What does this have to do with affordances, though? Well, affordances are all about patterns. Why do you think something is clickable whenever you see underlined blue text? Why do you think a big red button activates something dangerous? It’s because you have witnessed this being an affordance of these “patterns” over and over again.

Now imagine if you completely ignore affordances while building your game, application, etc… You would be making it much harder for the users brain to find patterns and make habits within your application. So before I let you start using your new tool, I’ve put together some examples of how you can use affordances in your own games and applications.

Portal and The Legend of Zelda

These games use affordances and clever level design as a way to teach you certain elements of the game and build habits — thus avoiding the need to incessantly tell you what to do each step of the way (like most games nowadays).


Jumping Through Portals

Right when you start the game you are required to walk through these strange blue and orange portals on the wall, thus teaching you the basic properties of these portals. As you continue, the game eventually lets you place one of these portals wherever you choose. But, as users quickly find out after trying to randomly put portals everywhere, only white surfaces are “portalable” and afford portals.

The game continues in this same pattern whenever a new element is introduced. First, force the player to see the affordance (e.g., a box deflecting lasers, blue gel acting as a trampoline, etc…). Second, let them play around with the new elements in a controlled environment (e.g., only allow them to control one portal). Lastly, let ‘em loose!

The Legend of Zelda

Escaping The Room

As soon as you find a new weapon or tool in a dungeon, the game forces you to use this new tool in order to escape the room you found it in. The game then takes this opportunity to associate a certain sound or shape to the use of the tool (e.g., the hookshot and a bullseye).

After continuously associating this shape or sound with the tool, the player has now learned this shape or sound affords the use of the tool. Now whenever the player sees a bullseye, they are certain to try and use the hookshot on it.

Keep existing affordances in mind while designing

Before someone starts using your application or playing your game, they have already “learned” affordances from their past experiences (their perceptual field). They have already learned that red barrels explode when shot and a button with a floppy disk on it will download something. Underlined text with a different color is a link, red bubbly liquid is lava and will damage your character when touched and red buttons and levers trigger something important (e.g., explosions).

So before you design something, think about what previous applications and games have already taught players.

Well that’s all I have to say about affordances for now. So get out there and start using your new tool!


  1. Affordances are the qualities of an object that allow a user to perform a certain action (e.g., a ball affords bouncing and a chair affords sitting).
  2. Perceived affordances are what a user thinks an object can do (e.g., this button looks like it downloads this app, this door looks like it can be pushed open).
  3. Since one of the ways our brain creates habits is by constantly being on the lookout for patterns in everything we do, both affordances and perceived affordances are key tools in building habits and behaviors. Why? Well, if what an object can do and what we think it can do never align… our brain may never be able to find a pattern.

Habit and Behavior Engineering Toolbox: Near Misses

It’s time to add another tool to the habit and engineering toolbox. The tool we’ll be adding this time is: near misses.

So what are near misses? They are exactly what they sound like. It’s getting close to achieving a reward, placing your portal just an inch off to the right in Portal or getting two 7′s and one cherry at a slot machine. Now you may be wondering how this could help build habits and behaviors.

Near misses sound like they would be frustrating and stop you from playing a game or going another round at the slot machine. But in fact, the opposite is true. In general, when encountered with a near miss, people are likely to try just one more time at beating the level or going another round at the slot machine. Plus, if you’ve ever played the slots or videogames you already know what I’m talking about.

Even though near misses are easy to understand, it may not be easy to think how to utilize this great tool. So I’m going to give you three things you’ll want to keep in mind when using this tool along with some examples so you can get some ideas of your own:

Things to keep in mind:

  1. The user/player has to get close enough to getting the desired result, so instead of it feeling like a loss, it feels like a “mini win.”
  2. They cannot be abused. People are smart and will realize their near misses don’t end up “paying out.” It’s just like the boy who cried wolf.
  3. Even though they can be used alone, IMO, near misses are better when used in tandem with other behavior and habit tools.


Dropbox’s affiliate system:


Dropbox’s referall program is a win-win for both users in the referral process. If you sign up through a referral link, not only does the referrer get an extra 250MB of space, so do you (shameless referral link)!

But that’s not the only reason its been so successful. Whenever you refer someone to use Dropbox, Dropbox lets you their progress, from sign-up through installation of the Dropbox application. Because of this, whenever you see one of the people you invited is just one step away (a near miss), you’ll probably have an urge to give them a phone call or an email to get them to complete the process. Both of you just got more filespace and Dropbox scored yet another potential customer.

McDonald’s Monopoly Game


You probably already know what this is, but for those who don’t, every year McDonald’s puts on a Monopoly event where you get Monopoly properties in the form of stickers when you buy their fries, drinks, etc… Now since I don’t have any actual data this is just speculation, but it seems McDonald’s engineers the chances of you getting certain Monopoly pieces so almost everyone who plays the game achieves a near miss.

You’ll find yourself getting Boardwalk with your first order of fries, and Atlantic Avenue and Marvin Gardens the next time you visit… but you most likely won’t ever get the all important last piece. But the guys at McDonald’s are quite smart and avoid the “boy who cried wolf” with all those near misses (see #2 above in the things to keep in mind). So while you may never get the last property (e.g., Park Place or Ventnor Avenue), you’ll get mini consolation prizes like a free large drink or fries. Which will just get you to come back and try your luck once again!

Nike Soccer: My Time Is Now (Link)

Nike Soccer

This is a great example of near misses being used in conjunction with another behavior and habit tool. In this interactive video, Nike beautifully gamified (a.k.a. used the gamification tool) their video to draw the attention of the user and make it engaging. So where is the near miss in this? When you get to the end of the video you’ll see a little illustration showing you how many tunnels you discovered. By showing the user how close they were to discovering all the tunnels it increases the chance the viewer will watch the video, out of their own volition, once again. Perhaps even sharing it with a friend this time.

These are just a handful of examples where near misses are being used to create or change habits and behaviors. So get out there and start using this amazing tool.


  1. Near misses are when a user gets close enough to a goal that instead of it feeling like a loss, it feels like a “mini win.”
  2. They can’t be abused and are almost always more effective when used in tandem with other behavior and habit tools.
  3. From companies like Dropbox and McDonalds to online applications and YouTube videos, near misses are in use everywhere you look.

P.S. If you happen to come across or know of any other great examples where this tool is used, please let me know and I’d love to add it to the list :)

The Current State Of Gamification

Gamification is and has been gaining popularity for a while now. And while I’m excited about that, there are 3 major problems that need to be brought to light. But to properly discuss these problems, we need to first agree upon the definition of gamification. The definition I will use is the following:

Gamification is the use of game attributes to drive game-like player behavior in a non-game context. This definition has three components:

1. “The use of game attributes,” which includes game mechanics/dynamics, game design principles, gaming psychology, player journey, game play scripts and storytelling, and/or any other aspects of games

2. “To drive game-like player behavior,” such as engagement, interaction, addiction, competition, collaboration, awareness, learning, and/or any other observed player behavior during game play

3. “In a non-game context,” which can be anything other than a game (e.g. education, work, health and fitness, community participation, civic engagement, volunteerism, etc.)

Michael Wu, Lithium

Now that that’s settled, on to problem #1.

Problem One: What you’re using isn’t gamification. It’s pointsification!

One of the reasons gamification has been growing in popularity with the masses, is because it’s pitched as something simple to add in to almost any existing product or framework, promising great results with little to no effort. And to the majority, gamification or “gamifying” something is just adding points, badges, etc., to an existing product or framework.

In fact, that’s how Gabe Zichermann, one of the big advocates of gamification sees it:

Gamification can be thought of as using some elements of game systems in the cause of a business objective. It’s easiest to identify the trend with experiences (frequent flyer programs, Nike Running/Nike+, or Foursquare) that feel immediately game-like. The presence of key game mechanics, such as points, badges, levels, challenges, leaderboards, rewards, and onboarding, are signals that a game is taking place. [source]

Herein is where the problem lies: simply adding badges, leaderboards, etc., is not “gamifying” something. It’s “pointsifying” something. And it is very important to draw a line here, because pointsification and gamification are two different tools for building habits and behaviors.

In fact, this problem is so wide-spread that I challenge you to find an example where someone who added “gamification” didn’t just make a point distribution system (a.k.a. pointsification).

Now don’t get me wrong, I think when gamification is done right it’s an amazing thing. Just check out two of my favorite examples:


Nike Soccer interactive ad:

As you’ll see in each case, by using gamification the experience becomes more fun and interactive. It’s more engaging!

Problem Two: You can’t add this stuff after you’re done “baking your cake.” It’s not icing!

Pilsbury Funfetti Frosting

Another reason why gamifcation is so popular, is because people think of it as Pillsbury frosting: Create your application and then layer on the frosting to make it taste and look better. Recycle all those old applications and add the same frosting to them too. Why not?

It would be great if this were the case… but what’s so interesting about building habits and behaviors is for each one you want to change or create, the approach is very different. There is no formula for building a habit. And because of this, the “tools” for building them (e.g., gamification) are key ingredients that need to be added to the mix! You can’t add flour to a cake after you take it out of the oven. So let’s move on to my last point:

Problem Three: Stop focusing on gamification and choose the right tool for the job! Building habits and behaviors is what’s important.

At the end of the day, gamification and pointsification are just tools in a toolbox to help you build habits and behaviors. They are NOT Swiss Army knives. In fact, they can be quite dangerous tools if not used properly!

Let’s say gamification is a screwdriver. If you had a bolt that needed to be tightened, you’d want to use a wrench since it’d be the best tool for the job. Using your screwdriver would be the wrong choice, and in fact, could make matters worse. But, if you have a screw that needs to be tightened… well that screwdriver will do a great job.

What I’m trying to say is, instead of just using gamification anywhere and everywhere, first think about what habits and behaviors you want to build. THEN select the right tool for the job. If the tool happens to be gamification, then by all means please use it.


  1. Gamification is not just adding badges and leaderboards to your products. That’s pointsificaton!
  2. Tools for building habits and behaviors like gamification and pointsificatoin are not Pillsbury frosting. You can’t just layer them on after your product is done. They are a key ingredient that needs to be baked with the rest of your ingredients.
  3. Focus on building habits and behaviors, and pick the right tool for the job. Gamification is not always the right tool.
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