The Human Factor: How Do You Know How To Hold A Coffee Mug?

Feb 18, 2013

The handle on this blue coffee mug is an example of an affordance. Its design makes obvious the purpose or function.
Credit ~dgies / flickr

Human Factors aims to better integrate humans and systems to increase effectiveness and safety, and to reduce errors and accidents.

Sometimes, these systems can be simple, such as a human using a pen; and sometimes they can be much more complex, such as the systems in place to launch shuttles and rockets into orbit. One principle that is often used in our field is called “Affordance.”

Affordances are defined as a quality of an object or environment that makes it obvious what that object or environments purpose or function is.

For example, the handle on a coffee mug “affords” holding; a car steering wheel affords turning, and a park bench affords sitting. This is a purely psychological phenomenon, and sometimes those who engineer objects don’t really understand or utilize the concept.

This can be to the detriment or danger of the users. For example, there was an incident on one of the space stations where an undiscovered leak was going to cause the termination of the current mission. Little did the astronauts know that the handle by their viewing window was indeed a part of oxygen tubing that had to be routed out of the wall and back again, leaving a little loop that looked exactly like a handle.

Because it was next to a window, the astronauts assumed that’s exactly what it was, and the force of them holding onto it had put a tear in the tubing, leading to the oxygen leak.

The engineers put it in place without the realization that a human will look at it and think it’s a handle, and the mistake could have been disastrous.

So, next time you interact with a piece of technology, realize that many minds went behind its creation to ensure it is useable and safe.