Affordances User Experience (UX) topic overview/definition

What are Affordances?

Affordances are an object’s properties that show the possible actions users can take with it, thereby suggesting how they may interact with that object. For instance, a button can look as if it needs to be turned or pushed. The characteristics of the button which make it look “turnable” or “pushable” together form its affordances.

Psychologist James Gibson coined “affordance” in 1977, referring to all action possibilities depending on users’ physical capabilities. So, a chair not only “affords” being “sat on,” but also “thrown,” “stood on,” etc. However, in human-computer interaction (HCI) expert Don Norman’s 1988 book, The Design of Everyday Things, affordances became defined as perceivable action possibilities—i.e., only actions users consider possible. Thus, an object’s affordances depend on users’ physical capabilities and their goals and past experiences. A chair only affords “sitting,” because past experience supports that action. Don Norman’s definition of affordances as perceivable action possibilities soon became the predominant one in HCI and UX design.

Designing products with affordances in mind is vital for clearly showing what users can do with them. However, designing effective affordances is getting increasingly harder—how we use/control objects has changed. The first objects (e.g., hammers) people grabbed physically—tools giving direct control. Later, performance-enhancing mechanisms (e.g., catapults) appeared between objects and users, providing mechanical control. With electricity, people were suddenly interacting with motors instead – mechanical succumbed to electrical control. Once printed circuit boards became cheaper and sophisticated products featured even more functionality, understanding a product’s functions from its appearance grew even harder.

We have since become used to controlling complex operations with smartphones—our fingers touch glass displays that don’t offer obvious affordances. To leverage this development, UX designers often utilize the knowledge/experience people have of their past interactions with direct or mechanical control so as to design electronic products’ affordances. For instance, buttons on software interfaces often resemble physical buttons with elevation (featuring drop shadows).

Literature on Affordances

Here’s the entire UX literature on Affordances by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Affordances

Take a deep dive into Affordances with our course Affordances: Designing Intuitive User Interfaces.

Affordances are a key concept for designers. If you want to build products that are intuitive and easy to use, fully understanding the relationship between the human mind and technology is crucial. An “affordance” refers to the possibility of an action on an object; for instance, we say that an elevator button affords being pressed, and a chair affords being sat on. The concept was popularized by HCI (human-computer interaction) expert Don Norman in the late 1980s, and it has since played an essential role for user experience professionals and researchers. Understanding this term is essential for anyone who wants to get a deeper appreciation of what it means for a product to be “intuitive.”

Taking this course will teach you both the theory of affordances and also how to build instantly perceptible affordances into your own designs. Your users should be able to identify the actions afforded by a design with speed and accuracy. Thus, the better you can make your affordances, the more likely you will prevent the user from becoming frustrated (which can happen very quickly). In order to achieve this, you as a designer must appreciate how users perceive the world and how experience, context, culture, constraints and other factors affect our ability to detect the possibilities of actions on offer. This is at the heart of why those interested in a design career and established designers alike must gain a firm grounding in the meaning and potential application of affordances as a designer’s tool.

Throughout the course, we identify the major milestones in the evolution of the term “affordance” and outline how it applies to practical user experience (UX) design. Along the way, we look at the affordances of objects in the real world and screen-based interfaces so as to reinforce the concepts and principles covered in each lesson. You will soon realize how vital a solid grasp of affordances is—the name of the game is to make designs that users can take to naturally and without having to hesitate to ask themselves, “What happens if I do this?”.

All literature