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A Humanistic Framework for Design

By Gerd Waloszek, SAP AG, SAP User Experience – September 6, 2012

In her 2011 book Inventing the Medium – Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice, Janet H. Murray outlines a new (she calls it "innovative") framework for design, in which she adopts a humanistic instead of a social science or industrial design perspective. Murray regards this framework as a unifying framework for many disparate but related efforts and suggests that it helps speed the process of innovation because of its focus on core human needs and its intention to "focus designers' work on useful and lasting innovation" instead of on mere novelty.

Murray explains that digital designers have two responsibilities: "To create the artifact that best serves the needs of people who will interact with it, and to advance the digital medium as a whole." In her view, designers are engaged in a "collective design process," performing "the collective cultural task of inventing the digital medium," in other words, expanding "the meaning-making conventions that make up human culture" and "our ability to understand the world and to connect with one another." Read my review (in progress) of Murray's book for a closer look at her humanistic design perspective.

In this article, which complements that review (in progress), I want to briefly outline this approach and its humanistic design perspective because it differs considerably from typical HCI-oriented design approaches that currently dominate the UI design field. Please note that there is a certain overlap with the review.


Building Blocks and Foundational Design Principles of the Framework

According to Murray (2011), her new framework for design entails the following building blocks:

  • "A method for invoking this wider view of design possibilities" I describe my understanding of the method below
  • "A vocabulary for identifying and characterizing design elements" I describe the sources from which Murray derives the vocabulary and certain conventions that she uses below
  • "A set of principles for making choices within this expanded decision space"

She calls her approach a "design practice," refers to it as "inventing the medium," and asserts three foundational design principles:

  1. "All things made with electronic bits and computer code belong to a single new medium, the digital medium, with its own unique affordances."
  2. "Designing any single artifact within this new medium is part of the broader collective effort of making meaning through the invention and refinement of digital media conventions."
  3. "When we expand the meaning-making conventions that make up human culture, we expand our ability to understand the world and to connect with one another."


  • Ad 1: In the section below, I describe in more detail how the design space (space of possibilities, decision space) is opened up by the affordances of the digital medium.
  • Ad 2: Inventing and refining digital media and their conventions is what Murray refers to as "inventing the medium." She does so because she feels the digital medium is still in an immature state, in which there is little guidance for designers.
  • Ad 3: According to Murray, designing digital artifacts (and making meaning an essential ingredient of this activity) expands our ability to understand the world and connect with one another and thus advances the digital medium as a whole. Murray repeatedly returns this second aspect of design, in addition to its main aspect of "creating the artifact that best serves the needs of people who will interact with it."

A Few More Concepts: Genres, Constraints, Designing for the Core Human Needs

  • Genres: Genre is a term of categorization used in literary and communication studies, referring to representational artifacts that are characterized by similar conventions and formulae. Genres serve as cultural frames and cognitive schema for understanding new media artifacts as a member of a familiar group with predictable conventions. (Adapted from the glossary in the book)
  • Constraints: According to Murray, "good design is shaped by constraints as well as affordances: constraints of time, resources, screen space, physical form, and especially human attention. In the glossary, she also mentions platforms of implementation as an important source of constraint.
  • Designing for the Core Human Needs: Murray demands that the designer's task must be in the service of specific human needs. The design process should therefore start with the question: Who needs this object for what? According to Murray, it involves three levels:
    • Function: How will specific end users use the product in particular tasks and activities?
    • Context: What social and cultural customs, relationships, institutions, and value structures does this product reflect or subvert?
    • Core: What deeper, enduring general human activities and values does this object serve?

The term "genre" is not used very often in the UI design field. It is more associated with media and digital games. However, this term might be useful even in the context of business applications. There, we speak of "transactional applications", "light-weight applications", "consumer applications", "mobile applications", and so on. The term "genre" might help make it easier to refer to these "application types."


The Humanistic Design Perspective

The humanistic perspective of Murray's design framework comprises:

  • Design as a cultural practice:
    Murray states that "from a humanities perspective, the design of digital objects (or digital artifacts) is a cultural practice like writing a book or making a film. ... To see any artifact ... as part of culture is to understand how it becomes meaningful through the social activities, thoughts, and actions of people who engage with it."
    • Goals of approaching design as a cultural practice:
      Murray points out that, "in approaching interaction design as a cultural practice, our aim is always to make an object that is satisfying in itself and that advances the digital medium" and – as she states elsewhere – advances the design practice as a whole.
      Murray repeatedly points to these two aspect or goals of design: "To create the artifact that best serves the needs of people who will interact with it, and to advance the digital medium as a whole." Or, as she states elsewhere, "Good design is aimed simultaneously at perfecting the objects and at improving the overall practice of the field." For Murray, advancing the medium and advancing the design practice go hand-in-hand.
  • Multiple frameworks of interpretation:
    According to Murray, humanistic inquiry "accommodates multiple frameworks of interpretation" because "the design process never has a single straight answer."
    Murray illustrates this point with the digital telephone, which can be regarded as a neutral piece of business equipment, a stylish status symbol, an intrusive disruptor of family rituals, or a lifeline between an isolated individual and a distant community". She therefore introduces the term "interactor" and prefers it to the commonly used term "user", which in her view reflects "a model of the computer as a tool that we put to use." The tool model is just one facet of how we can view the computer.

In short, we can identify the following two main points in Murray's humanistic design perspective and for her design framework:

  • Addressing core human needs focuses "designers' work on useful and lasting innovation" instead of on mere novelty.
  • Designing digital artifacts (and making meaning an essential ingredient of this activity) enhances our ability to understand the world and connect with one another and thus advances the digital medium and the design practice as a whole.

The Digital Medium, its Four Affordances, and Their Related Fields of Study

The Digital Medium and its Four Affordances

The main insight of Murray's book is "that everything made of bits is part of the same digital medium, because it shares the substructure of computation." The digital medium distinguishes itself from traditional media such as film and print by offering "a unique combination of properties", or "its own unique affordances", that can be used for symbolic communication." She explains that "by understanding the affordances of the digital medium – its procedural, participatory, encyclopedic, and spatial properties – we can exploit them appropriately to develop more coherent media conventions, the digital formats and genres that will expand the scope of human expression."

Thus, in Murray's framework, the four affordances of the digital medium open up the above-mentioned "wider view of design possibilities" (or "expanded design/decision space") and provide "the context for all of our design choices." I already mentioned the two goals in approaching design as a cultural practice. Now I can complete Murray's original statement by explaining how these goals can be achieved: by "refining or creating conventions that best exploit these four affordances." (The complete citation is as follows: "In approaching interaction design as a cultural practice our aim is always to make an object that is satisfying in itself and that advances the digital medium by refining or creating conventions that best exploit these four affordances.")

I have to admit that I am unfamiliar with Murray's use of the term "affordance." For example, she speaks of the "procedural affordance" of the digital medium when she refers to procedural properties in general; she also uses the term "property" in lieu of "affordance". I am more familiar with Don Norman's more general use of the term. (But note: He currently prefers the term "signifier" to "affordance".) Therefore, I tend to translate the term "affordance" internally to "design dimension" (which I think is closer to Murray's occasional use of the term "property"). Note that Murray also speaks of "representational affordances" when looking at the computer as a single new "medium of representation."

Related Fields of Study

Murray relates each of the affordances to one primary "field of study" or "most important contributory discipline." Designers "can draw on this discipline to maximize the expressive potential of digital artifacts and of the larger digital medium." That is, viewing the computer as a specific medium makes use of concepts and convention from these disciplines. Definitions of many of the concepts can be found in the glossary at the end of Murray's book.


Table 1 below lists the four affordances of the digital medium, their definitions (from the glossary), as well as the primary related disciplines or fields of study, as Murray calls them:

Affordance Definition Most Important Discipline
Procedural The ability to represent and execute conditional behavior (computer vs. earlier media) / the processing power of the computer that allows us to specify conditional, executable instructions. Computer science
Participatory The digital medium is participatory in allowing an interactor to manipulate, contribute to, and have an effect on digital content and computer processing. Human-computer interaction (HCI)
Encyclopedic The digital medium is encyclopedic in three ways: its capacity, its extensive range of legacy and computational media formats and genres, its ability to represent any symbolic representation (including simulations of highly complex systems). Information science
Spatial Digital environments can represent space using all the strategies of traditional media, such as maps, images, video tracking, and three-dimensional models. Unlike older media, digital media artifacts can be navigated. Visual design (Visualization)

Table 1: The four affordances of the digital medium, their definitions (from the book's glossary), and the most important disciplines from which to use concepts and conventions

Primary Affordance, Combining Affordances

For Murray, the procedural affordance is the most important affordance because it is "the processing power of the computer that allows us to specify conditional, executable instructions" and thus to realize digital media.

Murray explains that interactivity results from combining the procedural with the participatory affordance. But for her, interactivity is not a design goal in itself – agency and immersion are the real design goals. She states that when both affordances fit together well, that is, when visible procedurality is combined with transparent participation, this creates the satisfying experience of agency (that is, makes something happen in a dynamically responsive world).

I try to combine other affordances below.


The Grid of Affordances

According to Murray, "these four properties constitute our design space the context for all of our design choices. Individual projects will be located at various points in that design space, exploiting one property more than another. But thinking of the potential for any project to more fully exploit each of the four properties can help us to discover new directions that we may have previously overlooked." Murray also describes this approach as "a framework for innovative thinking based on examining individual projects within a grid of possibilities."

Murray formulated the principle of "maximizing the affordances of the medium" as follows: "One way of thinking about advancing the medium is to aim at maximizing all of its affordances." However, this does not mean that every possible application of digital technology should be included, but "designers should imagine the many ways in which each of these affordances can be applied to the design task. To support this task, she visualizes the resulting design space in the form of a grid. "We can think of the four affordances as a grid, offering conventions and genres that have become sufficiently standardized to be adopted across projects and platforms." For example, single artifacts can be entered into the grid to visualize to what extent they exploit the different affordances, or examples of standard formats or genres can be arranged around the grid to visualize which affordance they primarily exploit. Table 2 below shows the four affordances of the digital medium with filled-in examples of standard formats and genres that exploit each of them:


Information Spaces
Virtual Landscapes
GPS Devices
Navigation Conventions


S p a t i a l

Portable Media Players
Organizational Conventions





Game Engines
Search Engines
Sensor Devices
Control Conventions



Blogs & Instant Messaging
Media Sharing Sites
Recommendation Systems
Input Devices
Icon/Command Conventions

Table 2: The four affordances of the digital medium with examples of standard formats and genres that exploit each of them (after Murray)

Using the Grid of Affordances

Murray proposes to use the grid of affordances as an aid in designing and analyzing digital artifacts:

  • Affordance mapping: Map an existing or proposed artifact against the larger design space in order to identify opportunities for growth and to predict the direction of media innovation:
    • Helps focus conversations about priorities
    • Helps synthesize the result of a competitive analysis
  • Brainstorming: The grid can be used in brainstorming sessions in a number of ways:
    • Use the grid as focus of brainstorming at the beginning of a design process
    • Start with human activities and ask in what ways they relate to the four affordances
    • Identify existing applications and place them on the grid to get an overview of the design space
    • Use it in "magic wand" brainstorming (include impossible but desirable design elements)

Figure 1 below presents two examples of affordance mapping: the early Google search site focusing on the procedural and encyclopedic affordances, and the flickr photo sharing site focusing on the participatory affordance.


Figure 1: Two examples affordance mapping using the grid of affordances (after Murray)

Playing Around with the Grid of Affordances

Personally, I have difficulties with mapping applications to the affordance grid, probably because I am a physicist and used to exact scales. I have to admit that he arrangement of the four spaces with its horizontal and vertical center lines reminds me of the typical schema of a four-quadrants diagram, which is based on numerical scales.

Murray's grid inspired me to look for different styles of visualizing the design space and to think about how affordances other than the procedural and participatory ones might combine together. Figure 2 below shows my slightly modified version of the flickr mapping, which led me to propose calling the combination of the participatory and the encyclopedic affordances "social" and to suggest the social web as a related field of study for the combination:

Figure 2: Affordance mapping using a modified grid of affordances

Furthermore, I propose to call the combination of the spatial and the encyclopedic affordances "abstract spatial", and relate this combination to the field of information visualization (Murray handles this within the spatial affordance). I am also a little bit unhappy with the assignment of visual design to the spatial affordance – at least, I have a different understanding of the term "visual design." I therefore suggest using the term "visualization". Note that I propose to assign the combination of the procedural and participatory affordances to the field of interaction design.

Admittedly, I have no idea what combining the procedural and the spatial affordance would mean ("intelligent" maps?). There are two more combinations of affordances possible, but they are harder to visualize in Murray's and my version of the grid: procedural combined with encyclopedic (hypertext?), and participatory combined with spatial (adventure games?).

Finally, I would like to point out that Murray's visualization seems very appropriate for the purposes she proposes for the grid, particularly because the squares make it easy to enter text (see Table 2 for illustration).

Final Remark

I was tempted to investigate, whether four is the correct number of affordances and whether the affordances and labels Murray chose are the right ones, but – not very surprisingly – I was not able to come up quickly with a viable alternative proposal. After all, Murray describes her framework as a design practice, not as a taxonomy or research approach. Top priority in a design practice is that its elements are useful in the designers' daily work; an overlap or arbitrariness in the terms it uses is not so important.



To sum up, the framework Murray outlines in her book Inventing the Medium, is based on the digital medium and its four affordances – in other words, its procedural, participatory, encyclopedic, and spatial properties. The common design vocabulary and conventions are provided by the contributing disciplines computer science, visualization, information science, and human-computer interaction. Finally, assembling the affordances in a grid provides a design space and a method for exploiting and maximizing the affordances of digital artifacts.

For more information about Murray's framework, read my review (in progress) of the book and the book itself.



  • Janet H. Murray (2012). Inventing the Medium – Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. The MIT Press • ISBN-10: 0-262-01614-1, ISBN-13: 978-0-262-01614-8 • Review


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