Whatever happened to the paperless office? Look around almost any workplace and you will find paper is everywhere, competing for space alongside desktop computers, keyboards, monitors, and scanners those very same devices that were supposed to make paper obsolete. Far from replacing paper, the emergence of new, digital technologies has encouraged its proliferation, making it easier to create, print and copy paper documents. What is it about paper which makes it such an integral part of work? Does it explain why the paperless office has not yet arrived? Will it ever arrive?
The Affordances of Paper project aims to understand the persistence of paper in the workplace by analysing how the physical properties of paper support human work and interaction. The term affordance refers to the opportunities for human action offered by the nature of an object or medium. This project offers a behavioural analysis of paper in contrast to most studies of paper use which concern economic, technological, and customer trends.
Through both laboratory work and field studies of people using paper, we have discovered a wide range of reasons why people depend on it to support their work. Explanations exist at many different levels, from that of organisational culture down to the ways in which people use paper in particular tasks. These explanations can be directly related to the physical features of paper such as its tangibility, flexibility, and markability. For example:
Paper supports in-depth reading because people can easily annotate documents while they read, can flexibly navigate through a document, and can spread pages out in space to read "across" multiple surfaces.
People may choose to hand deliver paper documents because it provides an excuse for social interaction with a colleague, allowing discussion of the document and personalising the process of delivery.
Paper supports meetings and discussions because co-participants can easily see, at a glance, what documents others are attending to and where in those documents they are looking. Note-taking on paper is also easily interwoven with discussion.