The Buddy Bench: Low-tech location-based marketing for loners

Ok, this video of young Saskatonians showing off their school's "Buddy Bench" is pretty much the most adorable. 

The concept of the Buddy Bench is simple. As seven-year-old Matthew explains to the local reporter,

"If you can't find your best friends, and you don't know where to go play, you sit on the buddy bench, and somebody will come and find you."

A bench that puts an end to playground loneliness? Brilliant. 

I've been thinking a lot about the connection between design and communication, and this bench struck me as an interesting case. As a design solution, the buddy bench works by transforming the user's body into a signifier of an available affordance, communicating to others his or her readiness for a particular kind of interaction

Wait, what?

Signifiers and Affordances

In his landmark book on human-centered design, The Design of Everyday Things, Don Norman takes care to disambiguate some important terms that often cause confusion. 

  • An affordance is what is possible. It is about a relationship between a user and the world. "Affordances are the possible interactions between people and the environment," he writes. A door, for example, may "afford" being pushed or pulled open. 
  • A signifier communicates the affordance, signaling to a user "what actions are possible and how they should be done." The door must communicate to us whether it is pushing or pulling that will make opening happen. 

Some affordances are easily and unambiguously perceptible — a user can look at a well designed door handle and know immediately that it can be pulled. A not-so-well-designed handle will require some additional bit of information to help a person know whether to push or pull.

(For more on doors and human-centered designed, check out this video from Vox, featuring Don Norman.)  

To Norman's chagrin, some designers will talk about the addition of clues — such as providing arrows or signs — as the creation of affordances. But what those designers are really doing is adding signifiers to make existing affordances perceptible, not adding new affordances. It's confusing in part because of the close connection between signifier and affordance: some affordances are immediately perceptible and serve as their own signifiers.  

User as Signifier

The Buddy Bench doesn't actually do much. It's just a bench. And it doesn't really create new affordances. What the bench does is draw attention to an existing relationship possibility: that kids are willing to play with new kids. And the medium for this message, the thing that does the signaling, is not so much the bench itself as it is the presence of the kid on the bench. By sitting on the bench, the user's own body is communicating the possibility of a relationship — he or she becomes the signifier for an affordance. 

What are some other designs that transform people into a signifiers of affordances?

This idea isn't at all unusual. 

  • Any time you stand in front of the host station at a restaurant, the design of the space transforms your body into a signifier of a need ready to be met.
  • How about sidling up to the bar? Clearly a Buddy Bench for grownups. 
  • Another example might be when you sit in the exit row of an airplane. By occupying that space, you communicate your willingness to help in an emergency. 
  • Showing up at a political rally offers your body as a sign of support for the speaker's message. If you show up seeking information, wanting not to endorse the cause but to learn more about it, that message is likely to be lost on an outside observer. 
  • Your presence at a wedding ceremony signals that you will afford support to the newlyweds. We could say that every pew in the chapel is a Buddy Bench. Your choice to sit on one side of the aisle or the other may communicate something as well. 

I'm also thinking about location-based advertising, the so-called "holy grail" of mobile marketing, as an intensification and commercialization of the same idea underlying the Buddy Bench. Marketers are eager to find ways to interpret your presence at a particular location as a signal of another kind of affordance: your ability to be sold to.

Somehow, having location data from my cell phone used to serve me a hyper-targeted ad doesn't seem quite as cute as Matthew finding buddies on the playground, but proponents see it as just as helpful. As one exec writes, "it brings genuine value to end users—helping them find products and services where and when they want them." 

I guess it's all about the bottom line, buddy.